Room No 312 was still the same. The same musty smell. The enveloping darkness towards the last rows. The same green felt board announcing the latest achievements of the innumerable committees. The front row still had the lame chair which had one of its legs stuck with tape. The curtains to the large windows had changed though. He couldn’t remember what colour they had been though. It probably was the last thing he had noticed in those two years.
“Nostalgia, eh?” said Sara, settling down into the chair beside him.
Rohan nodded. He wondered if nostalgia sometimes had a tinge of heaviness to it.
“You guys still don’t have a proper wi-fi system. For a management institute, isn’t that like a mandatory requirement?”
Rohan wished Cheran had come instead of Sara. But his colleague at GTL foods was away on another of his country trips to ‘study the pulse of the market’. Rohan Khanna still did not understand the reason why even after nine years in an FMCG major, arguably the biggest in India, Cheran Nair still chose to behave like a Sales trainee. He still insisted on roaming the bazaars whilst his colleagus simply read the reports made by their juniors. Both of them had joined at the same time nine years ago and they had risen to the ranks of the General Managers. Rohan looked after drinks and beverages while Cheran was in charge of confectionery.
And being good friends, he wished he could have brought Cheran to show him his alma mater today which wasn’t so ‘Tier II’ after all. His thoughts were interrupted by Sara’s loud typing skills. Sara John was his colleague in GTL Foods. Throughout the flight from Delhi to Mumbai, she had incessantly conveyed her opinion on the food, the delayed flight, the uncomfortable seats and a zillion other things that he had perfected the art of tuning out and yet looking interested.
There was a knock on the door. A smartly dressed young woman peeked in.
“Would you like to have some tea, Sir? And you, Madam”
Rashmi had hated hospitality duty. But she would grudgingly do it everytime she was asked to do it. And cribbed about having to wear the uniform. One of Rashmi’s strongest views were against the imposition of an uniform on MBA students. She always said that an individual must have the right to wear whatever he chose. And, then Firdaus would counter the argument by saying how professional it made the students look. And they would argue on and on in their ‘Coffee for three’ sessions.
“Sir?”, The girl was still standing at the door.
“Yeah, one black coffee, please.”
Soon, the students from the ‘Placement Committee’ had come over to present him with the list of short-listed students for the interviews. Rohan was constantly reminded of himself when he saw Annamalai, one of the students in the Placement Committee. But, he was also reminded of Firdaus. And he forced himself to think of other things.
“Why do you behave like being in placements is like serving a brotherhood?”
“How can you say that? And I had never committed to this plan, Firdaus! I had only supported you throughout. I can’t think how I have betrayed you!”
Rohan and Sara began the interviews. Rohan had expected a more brash and confident batch now that he felt ‘older’ at 33. But, there were the same old jitters in the students. The same nervous smiles. And the same silly mistakes. But then, there were a few good candidates too. After four interviews, Rohan decided to take a break for lunch. While Sara chatted constantly with one of the students on the recession after lunch, he decided to take a walk around the campus.
As he got to the elevator, Annamalai approached him.
“Excuse me, Sir. Can I assist you? Are you searching for something?”
“Not really. I thought I would take a look at the campus.”
“Sure, sir. I can guide you. Would you like to start with the auditorium?”
“Young man, I graduated from this same B-School nine years ago. You must be kidding if you are telling me that the ‘auditorium’ is the best place to start my nostalgia trip.”
Annamalai smiled nervously.
“Sir, we can go anywhere you like. Just give me a minute.” He took out his walkie-talkie and began punching it furiously.
“No, thanks. But I would really like to go alone.”
As the doors of the elevator closed, Rohan saw Annamalai talk furiously into the walkie-talkie and run towards the ‘Placements nerve center’.
Rohan walked into D-Block. D-Block had housed the Boys Hostel and had a huge tennis court. The giant tree of jackfruit still stood there.
“Rohan, where have you been? Firdaus has passed out near the park!”
“Yeah, come on, run!”
“How can he be so stupid, Rashmi ? Why can’t he drink in the room? Has anyone seen him yet?”
“ No, I was calling him and then, I happened to see him from the window of my room. It was a huge task sneaking out of the hostel at such an unearthly hour! If the warden comes to know, I am dead ”
A walkie-talkie suddenly crackled behind him. Annamalai stood behind him, smiling sheepishly.
“Sir….er…Our director would like to meet with you. Could you kindly accompany me to the Director’s Office?”
Rohan smiled. He could remember all the times he had ‘accompanied’ Firdaus to the Director’s Office. At least two times, the reason had been to save him from rustication. And that one time when Firdaus had saved him by lying about the twenty-seven packets of Nurofen Plus packets lying in the room. Rohan had been addicted to the painkillers ever since he had been advised them as a solution to the frequent and blinding migraines that havocked his nights.
“Yeah, I am on my way. Give me two minutes.” He looked at the small pond behind the park. “Is this still the red zone?”
The ‘red zone’ had comprised of two chairs near the pond where a lot of love had been found or lost `on the campus. It had been a hit with his batch and most gossip emanated from incidents in the ‘red zone’.
“Er….yes sir…” said Annamalai sheepishly.
They began to walk to the academic block. As they approached the mini-auditorium on the way, he saw that there was a crowd of people and there were students milling around dressed in formals. Rohan smirked. Of course, there was another company in campus. There had never been a Day-minus with just one company on campus. Having been in the Placements committee himself, he had often tried to isolate one company from the other. The processes were held in separate areas and usually at different times of the day. If the timings tended to coincide, the walkie-talkies provided to the Student Committee members crackled incessantly and both the companies were kept unaware of the other’s presence. Somehow, companies recruiting from B-schools always wanted to be the first on campus so that they could select from the cream of the batch. And, hence all the drama.
Suddenly, Rohan had an idea as he thought about all the pranks that he had played on his unsuspecting batchmates in Firdaus’s company. He decided that he would give Annamalai something to worry about. He began to walk quickly towards the mini-auditorium where he realized the other company was. He planned to walk till the entrance and then turn back, just to see Annamalai worry that the ‘conspiracy theory’ of keeping the companies unaware was endangered.
“Sir, sir….this way”, said Annamalai and ran after him.
But Rohan was quick. Years of jogging had always kept him quick on his toes. As he neared the entrance, however he froze. The banner hung inside the auditorium belonged to RovingEye International.
“Dude, RovingEye is a cool name! It totally captures the essence of our company.”
“Yeah, I am glad that you came up with this business plan, Firdaus.”
“Don’t kid me, man! It was your idea to participate in that business plan contest.”
“So, fair and square, huh?”
“Yeah, fair and square!”
It was the same logo. A periscope with an eye on top. In blue. Just like he had drawn it sitting in the cafe outside the college.
As he stood there frozen, he saw the one person he had successfully and wilfully avoided for nine years since that day in March when he had graduated. Firdaus Daruwalla, CEO, RovingEye International, also his best friend through two years of B-school was standing in front of him. Instantly, Rohan averted his eyes and began to walk towards the academic block, Annamalai in hot pursuit with a crackling walkie-talkie.
Nine years ago :
As Rohan looked at the message on his mobile, his heart swelled with pride.
‘They quoted a figure of twenty lakhs per annum. You are the only person selected. Congratulations and LET’S PARTY!!!’
Prakrit, the placements coordinator had messaged him the good news. Rohan looked outside the window of his room. He was immensely happy. His father would be very proud of him and so would his sister. He knew that his father would treat his colleagues from the Indian Railways to a big party at their house in Bhopal. Rohan would now be able to pay off his education loan with ease and in a year. He had been flooded with congratulatory calls since afternoon. Being in a Tier-II B-school had turned out to be a blessing after all. In a year, when the economy had worsened, GTL Foods had recruited from this campus just because the Vice-President, HR of the company and an alumnus, had convinced the recruitment team that this B-School was a good shot as the quality of the students was good and they could cut down the pay usually given to a Tier-I B-School student by quite a few lakhs.
He turned to look at the messed-up bed in the corner of the room. Firdaus would be back soon. And he felt a little scared and then a little depressed. The initial euphoria had now faded and he realised that there was going to be a fight. A bad one.
But it was three in the night when Firdaus entered the room. He smelt of cheap liquor and cigarettes. Rohan had been asleep but was awoken by the huge banging of suitcases against the floor. Firdaus was packing his clothes. Haphazardly. With shivering hands.
Rohan stared at him for sometime. Then it all came to him. Thirty Lakhs. GTL Foods. RovingEye. Partners. Then, he decided to apologize.
“Shut up…Don’t you dare to speak to me!”
And then he spewed a lot of expletives.
“Hey, stop that right now! You don’t have the right to abuse me! I never was a part of your business plan. I only helped you whenever you can. It was you who assumed that I was a part of it…”
“Why didn’t you ever make it clear then, you fool! Didn’t you know that I had designed it to incorporate both of our strengths. You know I trusted your technical expertise, Rohan. You know I cannot do this without someone who has a fair knowledge of robotics. And you have betrayed me, you…”
“What was I supposed to do? I don’t come from a family that owns buildings in almost every city in this country! Besides, your venture is not even funded. And I have a family to support. You know that! How can you expect me to leave all that and blindly follow you into a venture that I know will never succeed?”
“Rohan, drop it. You promised me that this was a good venture. You said we could succeed. You said you would drop out of placements. You knew that this was the one thing that I have ever been passionate about! And the day I think we have finally made a start, I realise that the one person who was going to be a vital part of this venture has left and when I need you the most, you turn out to be a selfish dimwit.Where am I going to find a partner now? By the way, congratulations on the huge salary. Well done!”
And with that, Firdaus had picked up his bags, clothes spilling out of polythene covers and left. The only things left on his table were two sheets of paper and a paper napkin containing the sketch for RovingEye Ltd.
RovingEye was the name of the venture that Firdaus and Rohan had hit upon during the first year of their business education. It was primarily Firdaus’ idea but he had often depended on Rohan’s technical inputs and business acumen to fine-tune the business plan. RovingEye was a business idea on sensor technology. It was to be a company that would manufacture small circular tracking dots and a tracker device. The dots could be stuck on any surface and the tracker device was portable. So, it could be used in any domestic or office space. All you had to do was to key in the name of the object you were searching for and the tracker would communicate with the small dot stuck to the object and the tracker would display the area coordinates of the object you were looking for. Rohan had also worked with some of his friends on generating a GUI that would display the room you were in and the location of the sensor dot.
RovingEye as a business idea had been quite successful at business plan competitions and Rohan and Firdaus had grown increasingly confident about it. It was the pricing of the device that was its main USP. By sourcing the cheapest yet the most reliable materials, Firdaus had succeeded in making the product affordable. Yet, the biggest hurdle was when they met investors to convince them about their idea. Most of them thought that India was not yet ready for such technology.Or that it was too expensice. Or that it was not a scalable product. Or that it required too much investment in technology which had the chance of becoming obsolete. And thus, Rohan became increasingly worrie about this venture d as they neared the end of the fourth semester. And on that day, he had been coordinating the placement process for GTL foods when suddenly, it occurred to him that he could try his luck in this company. Of course, he wouldn’t get through. Or so he thought. But then he had. And then he had changed his mind.
Rohan looked at the sheets of paper lying on Firdaus’ table . Firdaus had flung them when he was leaving. He picked them up. It was a meeting appointment with the senior management of Blueline investors. It was a Stage-II meeting. Which meant that in three out of five chances, the management would give a go-ahead for the business idea. Which meant that RovingEye would no longer be just on paper. It stood the chances of becoming an in-operation company.
Rohan went over to the window. He could see the entrance of the hostel. Firdaus was arguing with the guard. Muttering expletives and pushing the guard away, he began to walk away into the night. And that was the last time that Rohan had seen Firdaus.
Rohan finished his tea. The interviews were over. They had shortlisted three students. As Sara and the hospitality team chatted endlessly, he kept thinking about Firdaus. Should he meet him? What was the use of carefully avoiding him these nine years?
As he got into the car, Rohan turned to Annamalai.
“Has the other company left?”
“Yes sir. They left an hour ago. But of course, their shortlist will be considered only after yours.”
But Rohan was not listening. He was thinking that it was wise of him not having approached Firdaus. The man still had a lot of pride left in him after all these years.
He was thankful that it was a lonely ride to the airport. Sara had taken off to meet some relatives. It gave him time to gather his thoughts. To shake off nostalgia. To plan the week ahead.
The flight was delayed. Rohan sat sipping his black coffee in the lounge. He never really liked these business lounges. They were too silent. Interrupted only by the ruffling of the pink papers. Or the beeps of the Blackberrys. He decided to go buy a pack of chocolates for Rashmi. She would have returned from her convention when he got home.
As usual, the variety of chocolates was huge. He pondered which one to pick.
“Pick the most expensive ones. You can afford them now.”
Rohan instantly recognized the mocking tone. He turned around to see Firdaus smiling at him.
He continued to stare at him, undecided on what to say…
The atmosphere seemed heavier than usual in the business lounge as Rohan fidgeted with the edge of his Mont Blanc. Firdaus sat across him, sipping tea.
“It is funny you should talk to me after all these years.” Said Rohan.
Firdaus sipped his tea and stared at him.
“But I am happy for you, Firdaus. And proud. Like I always was. You never let me explain. And you hurt my ego. Besides, at that age, you had everything that I wanted. I just thought that it was unfair of you to blame me for taking that job.”
Firdaus continued to stare at him.
“But you had a big ego too. You did not even bother to find when I and Rashmi got married. I have a son, by the way. His name is Hriday. Well, can you atleast say something now?”
“Do you still have that European side cabinet in your bedroom?”
Rohan was puzzled.
“Yes but how do you…..?”
Rohan realized that it must have come as a gift from Firdaus afterall. Rashmi had said that one of her uncles from Europe had passed it on as wedding gift. She had said that it was just a coincidence that Rohan was a collector of antique furniture.
“And I hope Hriday likes his blue dolphin toy.”
Rohan continued to look on as Firdaus started laughing.
“I always watched out for you, Rohan. I had made Rashmi promise that she would never reveal the identity of the sender of the mysterious gifts. It was not only you who had a big ego, mine was bloated beyond recognition. I agree I have always had it easy. But you must realize that RovingEye was my only dream. It was a passion. And when you left abruptly, it suddenly seemed like it would always remain a dream.”
Rohan watched as Firdaus took a sip of his tea and continued.
“But as I began my venture without the support of my family, I realized how it felt to live life on a stringent budget and strive to make ends meet. I understood why you opted for surety than adventure. But I also felt that you had missed out on the excitement of seeing for yourself the evolution of your own idea. And that is when I wanted to reconcile. But you see, this ego is something that is hard to fight once it has invaded your thoughts. I always thought you would speak to me first. I didn’t want you to apologize or anything. I just wanted you to take that initiative. But today, after all these years, when I saw you outside the auditorium, I realised that it is really stupid of us to pretend to be indifferent.”
Rashmi had finally convinced Hriday to sleep when her Blackberry beeped. She dreaded another message from any speakers of the convention she had been to. New York had been great but she had longed to be home.
She rose from the couch and went up to the table. It was a message from Rohan.
Make it coffee for three. The mysterious gift-sender of the European cabinet is on his way. 🙂