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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Sneak Peek of 'Wise Enough to be Foolish' by Gauri Jayaram

Chapter 20

I wanted to travel around the world. Destiny was helping my dreams come true. The day for my departure to Berlin arrived. I went to the airport in the evening and... I missed my flight. Unbelievable, right? Please believe it. I had this fantastic opportunity to travel overseas for the very first time, and I missed my damn flight! Don’t ask how it happened, but it was not an isolated incident. As life progressed, I missed more flights than any other person I know, and it was rarely because I reached the airport late. I could write another book altogether on all my missed-flight episodes but, anyway, I had a lot of explaining to do. Finally, after I had convinced my boss that it was a one-off (that of course we all know is not true), the following day I was on another flight to Berlin. 
As soon as I landed on German soil, I got a pretty good idea about what my boss had meant when he said it would be cold. In fact, I understood it better than anyone else because I had landed in Berlin with exactly one sweater and one shawl. It was four degrees that day. I froze on my way to the hotel. Once there, I headed to the reception where I was supposed to meet Rita Dastur. Rita was my boss’s friend, and he had told me that I could turn to her for any help I needed. The hotel gave me a registration card to fill in, and asked me to pay with traveller’s cheques. I tried to figure out what to do with them. It was not rocket science, but the form was in German, and English was certainly not the receptionist’s first language. I noticed another Indian standing at the reception. He seemed to be waiting for someone, and had been watching me intently. I could tell that he was an experienced traveller because, unlike me, he was wearing a warm coat. I asked the receptionist to connect me to Rita Dastur’s room. Before she could do that, the Indian gentleman turned to me.
‘Are you Gauri?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Hi, I am Raymond. I am Rita’s friend. She has already left for the day’s meetings, but you can come with me.’ Rita knew I had missed my earlier flight, and could not meet me as planned, so she had asked Raymond to help me reach the venue.
‘Your first visit to Germany?’
‘Yes, the first visit overseas, actually.’
‘I can tell,’ he said with a smile.
He was a very unassuming person, and seemed to be in his late twenties or early thirties. I had no idea who he was, but Rita had asked him to look after me and that was all there was to him.
‘It is a huge travel show. I think you should hurry up. Otherwise, you will be lost. This is Germany, and people don’t like it if you are late.’
‘Give me twenty minutes. I will be with you.’ I quickly ran up to my room and dressed as fast as I could. I ran down again as he was waiting for me.
‘Where’s your coat?’ he asked.
‘Well, I don’t have a coat. I didn’t think it would be so cold,’ I answered honestly.
‘You are going to freeze out there, I hope you know that. It’s a bit of a walk,’ he said, and then quickly added, ‘Wait here. I have an extra cardigan. It’s very warm. You can use it now, and return it to me in India.’
‘Are you from Bombay?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I am.’
Only when I met Rita at the India pavilion did I realise that Raymond and she were friends… and competitors. Everyone called him Rayo. Rita was impressive. There were hardly any women like her in her generation, but she was a Parsi and that explained a lot. She was definitely older than Raymond, and that also gave me the impression that she was senior to him in corporate ranking. Rayo and I were never formally introduced. I knew his name, and he knew mine.
That evening we were invited to a party hosted by India’s Tourism Minister. This was an opportunity for them to showcase Indian culture to the world. So Rayo told me to be ready at seven in the evening so that we could all leave together. At three minutes past seven I got a call. He was screaming. At me!
‘This is not India, this is Germany. And here seven means seven, not three minutes past! We all are waiting for you, so make it fast!’
Before I could say anything, he hung up. I rushed down. I was really worried. What if he told my boss?
I was wearing a sari that my parents had gifted me for my eighteenth birthday. It was pure silk — orange, with a green and gold border. I wore the biggest gold and green earnings, and a golden blouse. My boss had told me to take the best clothes, and this was the very best I had. But, as soon as I reached the lobby,
my heart skipped a beat.
Everyone was wearing the same business suits they had worn that morning. Rita’s was grey. Imagine that: GREY. And they all looked at me in amazement.
Rayo was the first to speak. ‘You are late. And why are you dressed like a Christmas tree?’ No more and no less.
I could not swallow, and I could not blink.
‘Can I go up and change, please? I will take just a minute.’
‘No, we are already late. Just get into the car.’
He was annoyed and, I have no doubt, amused. Rita, he, and I sat in the same car. My face was hot with embarrassment. The tears in my eyes were desperate to start rolling down. Rita came to my rescue. She spoke to Rayo in Gujarati, but I could make out what she was saying. She was telling him to go easy on me since I was just a new kid on the block and he was not. He tried to crack a couple of jokes. I responded with a half-hearted smile.
As soon as we reached the venue, he apologised with a grin, as if to say that it was not his fault but mine to tempt him with my somewhat outrageous outfit. But everything was forgiven from my side. I mean... I did look like one of the dancers invited by the Tourism Department of Government of India to perform on stage. No matter how much I tried to be inconspicuous, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I stayed with them for the rest of the trip. We worked hard all day, and in the evening we hung around together. I had a great time. They protected me from the big bad wolves (there were several at such events). I took advantage of their niceness, asking to be taken to every club, bar, and restaurant that was worth visiting — all in Rayo’s warm cardigan.
On one of our outings together I dug my strong teeth into a beef burger. It was yummy. Would I have done it had my mother not forbidden it? I don’t know. I headed back to Bombay with a present for Suraj — two tapes of Jethro Tull, his favourite band. Rayo returned a few days later. He had told me I could return his cardigan at his office. I knew where it was. Everyone knew where it was. It was one of the biggest travel companies in the country.
So a week after I had returned, after dry-cleaning the cardigan, I went to his office and asked for him. I was suddenly being treated like a VIP. I was still a little confused. I was escorted to his cabin. It was only then that I realised that he was the owner of the company.
Oh my God!
I was suddenly conscious of his corporate position. A little fazed, my mind reeled back to Germany. I tried to remember if I had said or done anything inappropriate. I had been treating him as if he were some school chum, slapping him on his back and muttering occasional obscenities. Of course he had known all along that I did not have a clue who he was. Now he sat watching my bewildered face with utmost enjoyment, aware that I was completely confused about how I should behave with him now.
‘Thanks for the cardigan,’ I said returning his sweater to him, tongue-tied, and suddenly on my best behaviour.
‘You are welcome. You have stretched it, especially at the chest,’ he smiled. And right then I knew that nothing had changed between us.
‘Shut up,’ I said. ‘You are the man on top. I didn’t know that.
How old are you?’
‘How old do you think I am, darling?’
He called everyone ‘darling’... even his wife. He said that he met so many attractive women that it was easier for him to just ‘darling’ everyone than put his foot in his mouth and call someone by the wrong name. I understood that. I call people by the wrong names (almost always).
‘I don’t know.’
He was, in fact, just a bit younger than my mother. In a way, if I had known who he was when we met in Berlin, we would have never become the great friends that we became. After that first trip to Germany, Rayo and I were together on several business trips together. I changed jobs, but we were both in the same industry and our paths crossed frequently. He was one of the most straightforward people I have ever met. I can say he became my mentor. He encouraged me whenever my chips were down, and he was by my side for every big career decision I took. I always relied on him for those things.
He said whatever he wanted to say in simple words, and no sugar coating. Take it or leave it. I liked that.
He was a tycoon in the industry. Yet, he was modest, and I truly admired his humility. His wife and I also became friends, and I was warmly welcomed to their home.
He would sit beside me at fancy official dinners, and with a sweet smile that never betrayed what we were talking about, tell me that my nail paint was chipped. Chipped nail polish was bad grooming, he’d say. He wanted me to be perfect. I learnt so many things from him for free that no B-school could teach you even if
you paid them a lot of money! His travel company was an inheritance. It had been set up a couple of  generations ago. It was one of the first few travel companies in the country. His father and his uncle were pioneers in the travel industry, and they had created a legacy that he was destined to take forward. It was understood, even when he was very young, that this would be his future. He would have to take charge one day and run the empire.
‘How did it feel to have always known what you were going to do?’ I asked him one day.
‘I never paid any attention to it, darling. I was brought into the business as a teenager, and this is the only thing I have ever known or done.’
‘Doesn’t it bore you?’
‘It doesn’t bore me, but there are many other things I would still like to do. Someday, I may have the chance to do them.’
In some strange way, his legacy was also his trap. He had everything, but no freedom to do the things he wanted to do.
There was no time to smell the roses, as they say. We talked about serious things, but honestly, more often we talked about mindless things. And we laughed a lot. I always wondered why he was friends with someone like me, a kid and a nobody in the trade. The answer to that came to me several years later, when one day his wife called me up and asked me over for lunch.
‘I would love to. Are you celebrating something?’ I asked her.
‘No. In fact Rayo is not well, and his spirits are very low. I think he needs some fun, and you are the only person who can brighten him up.’
Bright. The word my name signified.

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