For all those the River couldn’t manage to carry along, I never forget I lost you on the way!
“I need you to run the status meeting this week.”
She looked up from her laptop, suppressing an involuntary shiver as she felt the heat from Arnav’s body right behind her. She pushed her chair back gingerly, avoiding bumping into him and rose.
Arnav waved his hand and asked her to keep sitting which she ignored promptly and turned to stand facing him nevertheless. She wasn’t about to crick her already strained neck.
It was the middle of the week and to say that she was buried with things to do, was a massive understatement. If this had been RDX’s project, someone from the team would have either burst into tears or stormed off the project – both events had happened during her two month rigorous imprisonment sentence with the man. Arnav Varun, however, was meticulous and organized to a fault. He planned, prioritized, reviewed, reprioritized, discussed and ensured that at any point in time, they knew that they were working towards a given outcome. This meant that there was additional time budgeted for just reviews – which technically ate into their “working” time and expanded their days well into nights. But given that they were fast heading towards the first key review milestone for the project which was scheduled for the end of the next week, it was a blessing in disguise.
But so far, everyone was working on their individual pieces. Arnav had made it clear that he would be the one holding it together because the separates needed to be perfect for the ensemble to be impressive. Project management essentials like status meetings with Mike and Jen, had been his territory. Asking her to run the meeting, was unconventional. And it meant he had something on his mind. “Are you travelling?” It wasn’t unusual for Senior Managers to step out to meet other clients during the week. But that usually happened when there was a seasoned manager on the project. The team at Wyatt was smart but still most people who were great individual contributors. Ken was a Consultant just like Khushi. And Maddy, an experienced Senior Consultant but from the Technology practice which meant that his responsibilities were restricted to his area of expertise unlike Khushi and Ken who were also expected to be generalists of sorts.
“No. I want you to have some face time with Jen once before the mid-term review next Friday. During that review, I’d like you present the initial findings from the secondary research for customers and competition. Maddy will do the Wyatt readiness and technology sections.”
Khushi felt a frisson of nervous excitement ripple through her chest. Presenting to clients was the crux of their profession. And she was going to have that opportunity this soon…If it wasn’t for Arjun’s many stories about how Arnav encouraged him and others to present to clients – even if just one slide at a time – at regular intervals, she would have even considered doubting his motivations. And what Arjun and others had gotten the opportunity for was presenting over the phone – for projects mostly small scale and low criticality. This was…beyond her expectations.
“You will be fine.”
He said softly but didn’t wait for an answer. Before she could say anything, he turned on his heel and walked away. In the next twenty minutes, she had a copy of the last status meeting document and talking points listed neatly in an email with closing comments on running through the document for the meeting as practice in about twenty four hours.
The next day and half zipped by what with the time she needed to spend on getting her work done and preparing for the status meeting. Status meetings were usually low key affairs. Jen being the Senior VP of Global Platform Strategy usually stayed away and allowed Mike to review. Arnav and Mike hadn’t any cause to call for Jen’s intervention yet. This week too, Jen’s dropping by was touted more as a health check review than anything more serious. By the time Khushi got to the meeting, the event however, had gained epic proportions in her head. She knew it was last minute nerves and that once she started speaking, she wouldn’t even have time to think about how scary it was. Arnav assured her once again that she would be fine just before the meeting and for some reason, it mattered that his words were confident, even amused at her state. He trusted her. She had no option but to do well.
The status meeting went by smoothly. Content wise, it was not earth shattering and hence she couldn’t revel in its “success” but she was glad it had be done with elan and that Jen had been pleasant and largely in line with their path of progress.
However, with the status meeting behind them, the mid-term review became clearer and a cloudburst of things to do exploded on their weekend and ripped any chance of reprieve from their schedule. If Arnav had a trip planned to Nishant-Sir’s house over the weekend, he didn’t mention cancelling it. Ken and Maddy too stayed back and the entire team, Arnav included, plonked themselves in the lobby of the Inn, much to the amusement and awe of Inn-keepers and residents alike. On her part, she texted Rajat to let him know that she was working the weekend and hence would have to push their meeting to the next. On the phone call with her parents on Saturday, she brokered a no-non-sense tone with her parent-guilt-ridden brain and sidestepped the topic of groom viewing with careless ease.
The week that followed expanded once again into the fifteen hour work-day zone. For Arnav, Khushi was sure, the days were even longer given he had to review different tracks, review with Jeff – who would also be there for the Executive review at the end of the week. Much to her amusement, Arnav had somewhere by Wednesday, even assigned Jeff a couple of slides which he told her in a wry comment that he would have to redo anyway. “Have you ever seen a Partner made slide? It will make you wonder how they ever crossed even the first promotion milestone.”
She had laughed then and once again, noted with awe, just how at home Arnav in the situation – chaos, stress and uncertainty notwithstanding. And her little experience at A&M said that this was not the norm. What did Arnav’s bosses – Shyam for instance – have to say about his “development” areas – a fancy, HR friendly term for weaknesses, she wondered. The man didn’t have any! Not professionally anyway.
The Friday of the Executive Review eventually reared its ugly head even as Arnav had taken full control of the document and relieved people of their individual sections almost twenty four hours in advance. He did ask them to make changes but those were minor. He personally edited the slide pack for every word and every punctuation. Jeff arrived at the Wyatt office early Friday morning and the team went through multiple dry runs of the presentation. She had been a debater in school, she had even enjoyed being one – but school was a long time ago. The presentation practice sessions the team went on with, was a blessing in disguise though Arnav and Jeff both made few comments on her section except to ask her to slow down while speaking – an Indian habit, Jeff remarked matter-of-factly the first time Arnav asked her pause and take a deep breath. By the time she was walking into the large executive boardroom-cum-video conference center at the top floor of the twenty storied building, she knew she had the best preparation one could possibly have in a similar situation.
“You did well.”
Khushi looked up from the menu which she was still reading despite having placed her order. Arnav was smiling at her, his face and body more relaxed than it had been in days.
She snuffed the need to dismiss the praise as she usually did and nodded her head. “Thank you. All the prep really helped.”
“Jeff is a big fan of prepping before meetings. Most Partners are. Project reviews are rigorous, yes but orals prep is usually a lot more intense. Big money is on the line.” He explained, referring to the colloquial term used in the firm for the final pre-sales presentation of project proposals to clients.
“I was a little thrown by the proxy market question that Jen raised. I said India but I am not convinced she or anyone else bought it.” Khushi offered, picking on the one small part of the meeting where she had been stumped.
Arnav shook his head. “My bad. I should have remembered to give you a heads up. It’s Jen’s favorite question. She brought it up multiple times during the proposal too. And her suggestion for a proxy was India too. Which is natural because of how often media, even firms talk about China and India markets in the same vein. And while there are similar shades, the markets themselves – especially automotive on the manufacturing side are very different. Customer behavior is advanced. State support and regulations are very different. So I don’t agree with Jen and the last time we discussed, I thought she was finally convinced.” He shrugged as he picked up his glass took a slip of his ice water. It was single digit Celsius temperature outside and he was drinking ice water. She shivered just at the idea.
“So it was a test? To see what I say?”
“Or to see if we are still sticking to our guns. It could be both. Jen fancies herself as a bit of a badass when it comes to getting work done from consultants. She likes to think she is keeping us on our toes.” He said with a little laugh that almost reeked of superiority, “But she has a sharp mind and she sees reason most times – which is not something I can say for a lot of clients.”
Khushi chuckled. She had liked Jen almost instantly the first time she had met her – well dressed but not unapproachable, sharp but not unsmiling. And if she were honest with herself, Khushi did feel that Jen had been a little easy on her – not condescending but pleasantly disposed to cut her some slack – smiling during Khushi’s presentation, asking questions but directing them more to the team. Perhaps this was her idea of giving a newbie some room. “How do you do this regularly – on a daily basis? I mean I feel like I will be battling some very serious lifestyles diseases if I have to deal with this much pressure every day.”
This time it was Arnav’s turn to chuckle. “Haven’t you heard? You get used to it.”
She looked at him skeptically and realized he really was joking.
“According to RDX, there is no way to get rid of presentation nerves except to talk so much that there is little difference between a regular conversation and client presentations.”
She made a face at the mention of her first project manager and kept quiet.
“That’s not an unusual reaction to RDX’s mention.”
Khushi’s disdain deepened along her brow. “He is not a pleasant person.”
Arnav raised an eyebrow with a bemused smile. “He is a let’s-throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-wait-for-something-to-stick guy, I agree.”
“Which is the key reason why his team ends up working insane hours regularly on a stretch and with changing directions every time they are close to finishing.” She replied sourly.
“But he puts in long hours too. At least there is that.” Arnav offered.
She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “It doesn’t help when I’m dying of hunger to know that the chef who just burned food out of sheer stubbornness, is hungry too.”
Arnav raised an eyebrow. “That was quite an elaborate metaphor. You really don’t like him.”
“No, I don’t.” She confirmed without remorse.
“It’s not just the work?” Arnav guessed a second later.
She nodded and found herself elaborating almost uncharacteristically. “One night we were working late in the office. It was almost eleven. We’d skipped dinner and lunch was almost twelve hours ago. So Rahil,” She said, referring to a Manager from the Bangalore office – her senior, Arnav’s junior, “goes and brings us the last remaining sandwiches from the café – everything else was closed. And just as he was about to give me my sandwich, RDX goes – Rahil – don’t disturb Kaveri. She needs to get the updates to the model done and refresh the charts.” She took a deep breath. “Rahil, being Rahil, didn’t drop it. He says to RDX – Raghu – it’s going to take her less than ten minutes – she can get back on the job after eating. And RDX goes – I’m pulling rank here, mate. We need this done. Kaveri, you can eat when you are done.”
She stopped, her breath uneven and rapid. She could still feel the anger of that moment in her face. And it seemed to matter very little that she had spilled out her guts to a man she had been walling herself off from.
Coincidentally, this was the exact moment that their server chose to bring them their food. She leaned back as the girl Kate, half exasperated, half exhausted, announced their orders and placed their dishes in front of them. She still needed to get used to the individual ordering system in this country as opposed to the table ordering that was mostly the order of the day back home. It was just the two of them at dinner today – Thai she had declared at first ask. The rest of the team had headed home early in the evening to take the much needed mid-project break – though technically, they were only just gone for the weekend.
“What did you say?” Arnav asked as the server left and they had begun to dig into their meals.
“What could I say?” Khushi replied as she spooned her curry into her fragrant rice and waited for the saliva in her mouth to settle down before she opened it. “I was stunned – I am almost always. It is what Meg Ryan describes to Tom Hanks…You have seen You’ve Got Mail?.” She looked up to ask and then grinned sheepishly as she saw Arnav smiling to himself. “Don’t laugh. It does bother me that I live my life with so many borrowed dialogues.”
Arnav chuckled at that and shook his head. “I am not laughing. Continue.”
“Where was I?” She asked, suddenly thrown by the radiance on his face. It was like looking at someone entirely different.
She grinned again, “Yeah. So like Meg Ryan says in the movie – I never know what to say to someone when they are being mean. So I was just stumped. I went back to work, finished it and then there was no appetite left to eat. Not that it mattered to RDX. Then I went home and kept thinking about what I could have said. And then eventually, I think I decided that I was overreacting; that maybe it was not such a big deal.”
Arnav paused and put his fork and spoon down.
She saw the rebuke in his eyes and decided to pre-empt the question. “What would you have said?”
He shook his head. “It depends. On how I felt at the time, on what my relationship with the person was…”
“I thought consultants don’t give each other the standard consulting answer?” She quipped with a raised eyebrow and almost laughed out aloud when she saw his eye widen in surprise before he laughed.
“Fair enough,” He said, raising one palm facing her in acknowledgement. “I would have said that I was hungry and that I needed to eat before I could think or do anything else.”
Khushi looked at him skeptically. “You would have said that?”
Arnav nodded. “Ninety-nine percent probability, I would have. Even if I wasn’t hungry.” Then he frowned as if to consider his own answer. “Especially if I wasn’t hungry.” He added after a long moment.
Khushi stared at him for a long moment. And then just let out an exasperated breath. “Do you make any mistakes at all?”
Arnav smiled quietly for a second. “I let people go. Even when they mean more than a lot to me.”
It was a rhetorical question. People weren’t supposed to answer rhetorical questions. Someone as smart as him should have known that. Now what was she supposed to do with this line? What was with him and these one liners anyway? She looked away from him, took a deep breath and filled her mouth with green curry and rice. The milky coconut gravy and tangy lemon grass hit her taste buds enough to cover the cocktail of misery and longing that was seeping into her taste buds thanks to the topic of conversation.
“See,” Arnav added a second later, as he finished chewing his own dish – something with chicken and a Thai sounding name that she was positive she couldn’t pronounce even if they plonked her in Bangkok for a year. There was no trace of anything other than general pleasantness in his voice when he spoke. “The thing with people like RDX is that you need to take charge of the relationship quickly and use your strength as a valued resource – which you should know you are if you last more than a week with him – to keep him at bay. He pushes and prods to see how much he can get away with. And most newcomers let him get away with a lot because they don’t know that they have, that they can claim their boundaries.”
Khushi made a face. “I can’t think so much. What is, is what is. I am a professional, others should just be too. Why is it so difficult?”
“And there will be some. But there will also be others who aren’t. Being prepared to deal with all sorts of people is critical – the sooner you learn the better.”
She mumbled something unsavory in her head. “Most others at A&M are far removed from this character type. How does RDX get away with it?”
“Do you know how much money he brings to the firm?”
Khushi snorted and rolled her eyes.
“The target for Partners at his level is four million a year. Last year he sold two such deals. That much money is un-ignorable.”
Khushi’s eyes widened, “He got eight million dollars as revenue last year?”
Arnav nodded and went back to his food. “He does a lot of the technology implementation deals. But still, it is something. To give you an idea, this engagement – you know the pricing – we are hardly touching a quarter of a million at billing.”
Khushi shuddered and took a deep breath. “What the hell was I thinking wanting to be a consultant? This is a nightmare.”
Arnav laughed and shook his head, presumably putting her down as an incorrigible, naïve, fearful idiot. Unfortunately for Khushi, there was little to argue here. The man might just be right in his assessment.
They returned to the Inn a little before nine – early by all standards. The conversation during dinner and on the way back had remained largely about work and light – enough for her to forget about any awkwardness that had been a part of most of their pre-weekend interactions. So in some sense, it was almost a shock when Arnav turned the engine off as he eased into the empty parking slot in front of her block and asked her, “I’ll see you here at the lot at nine tomorrow morning?”
She blinked and tried to think of what he meant when he clarified himself, “NK’s place. The edited video needs to be approved and uploaded. But that is just half a day. Mostly this weekend will be about hanging out, singing – not too many people. We could ask Divya to take us on a trip to Ann Arbor. It’s a beautiful campus and neighbourhood.”
The offer was so tempting, she could taste the crisp flavor of unfettered relaxation on her tongue. But she had signed up to meet Rajat Garg and put herself through torture. She was a masochist, after all. Why else would she had agreed to this madness that her mother was so insistent on? “I…” She licked her lips and realized that she was genuinely upset – not just about having to say no to a fun weekend but also because she really didn’t want to say no to Arnav. “I can’t. I need to meet someone this weekend.”
She wasn’t sure if it was because she said someone with such hesitation or because his senses were unusually sharp but it was almost as if a small light went out of his eyes. “You have relatives, friends in Detroit?” He knew she didn’t. If she did, she would have mentioned it and wouldn’t have taken four weekends to go see them.
She looked away and tried to summon some indignation that would help her throw back at him the fact that she wasn’t exactly answerable to him outside of work hours. But the feeling of…What did she want to do? What the hell was she doing? “I’m sorry, I can’t come with you tomorrow. I really would have liked to. But I can’t cancel this – I was supposed to do this last weekend but…”
Arnav continued to look at her, his eyes now completely shuttered though not a thing had changed on his face. The half smile that had sneaked up on her sometime during dinner and had remained firmly ensconced, stayed unmoved. “You should hold on to the car keys then. I’m sure you now need a supermarket trip.”
She nodded and got out of the car. He came around to hand her keys and smiled almost wistfully, “I’ll see you Monday morning.”
She stood there for longer than she should have, alone in a nearly empty parking lot.
And she dreamed of intertwined hands later that night.
River Song, Music and Lyrics
Song Title: Jab Kisi Ki Taraf Dil
Album: Pyar Toh Hona Hi Tha
Singers: Kumar Sanu
Music: Jatin Lalit
(I take the opportunity to apologize to Bryan Adams for that starting piece since Jatin Lalit never will. What a heart breaking realization it was! It still hurts. Almost as much Raja ko Rani se pyaar ho gaya.)
Chaahne jab lage, dil kisi ki khushi
Dillagi yeh nahi, yeh hai dil ki lagi
Aandhiyon ko dabaane se kya faayda?
Pyaar dil mein chhupaane se kya faayda?
Jaan se pyaara jab dildaar hone lage
Bol do gar tumhe pyaar hone lage
Next update: Monday, June 19, 2017, late night IST