Wonders of a Smile

Subhash Chandra

- Subhash Chandra

At Kashmere Gate Metro Station, I was the first in the queue and so was he in the parallel queue.  Suddenly, our eyes met and I smiled at him for no conscious reason.   
As the train was sliding into the station, he came over.
"Grateful to you, Sir."

In Delhi people generally don’t smile at strangers. There’s general suspicion and distrust. And for good reasons too. Who knows the stranger might be a pickpocket, phone snatcher, smuggler, drug peddler or terrorist. Play it safe. That is the unstated principle. 

“For what?” I asked.
“Saving my life!" he said and walked away.

That evening at home, as I lay in bed, I tried to recall the face of the person but the specifics eluded me. After all I had only a fleeting look at him. However, the image in my mind was that of gentle and distinguished looking man, somebody from the elite class. 

I’m quite superstitious. Whatever has worked for me a couple of times, I slot it as lucky. Therefore, I take the same lane to the Metro Station every day, though it is circuitous and longer. I count the compartments, and always board the third. Incidentally, number three and thirteen -- almost universally regarded as unlucky -- bring me luck. And at the platform, I stand in the same queue – right in front of the large Medical Insurance Ad of a smiling, pretty woman, two lovely children and a proud man who has taken the insurance and holds a placard, ‘Secure Future. No worries.’   
I never saw the gentleman again. Felt happy that he had given up the idea. 

A year passed by. The memory of the episode hazed and then completely faded out of my mind what with myriad office worries and routine family responsibilities. The mind does not store what is not of personal importance, anyway. 

The nature of my work keeps my mind engaged even when I am not at my office desk. I am a copywriter with an Ad Agency and keep thinking of a slogan I am engaged in producing. The lowly sounding copywriter carries a good salary with perks, but is a high pressure job. One has to deliver every time an assignment lands on the table and create a catchy slogan or jingle that would stick in the mind. For a TV ad, though much of the success depends on the Visualizer, Director, Cameraman and the actors, but the copywriter is held to account in case of failure. You are as good as your last slogan. Three, four consecutive flops could bring you closer to the pink slip. The job is permanent and yet temporary. 

The staff  like to call the Ad world ‘cool’. But it is actually a cold and selfish world: Never share your ideas with anyone. She/he may use it before you do. Insecurities masquerade in chick witty talk and an invisible shiver is lodged in the psyche. 
#
This was my third consecutive slogan going wrong. The Boss passed a snide remark. “A good slogan. Would bowl over five year olds,” 
He then crumpled up the paper and chucked it into WB. 
I had struggled all day. Instead of going home, despite knowing that my child and wife would be waiting for me to get back home as soon as early as possible, I headed for Café Coffee Day in Connaught Place.

While sipping coffee, I was lost in thinking up a snappy slogan. Suddenly, a voice jolted me to attention. 
“Excuse me, may I?” he asked in chiselled English, pointing to the vacant chair at my table. 
I said, “Please,” though I wondered why he had chosen my table when many others were unoccupied
I was worried. If I could not come up with a ‘catcher, slogan’ my job would be on the line. For some odd reason I thought of oujr five-year-old Gudyia, my wife, Aarti and the Insurance Ad hoarding at the Metro platform.
I was scared my creativity had fled and the imagination had got blunted. 
Not that I had not delivered riveting, sharp slogans earlier. In fact, I had regularly earned Boss’s appreciation and accolades from the client companies because their product’s sales had soared.  But in the fiercely competitive Ad world you cannot bask in the past glory.  

As he pulled the chair, I recognised him immediately. He was the same man.
“How are you? I hope I would never see you again at the Metro station and as the first in the queue.”
I presumed he travelled by car and I’d be proved right.
“Hopefully not. But to share with you, I am a depressive. Sometimes, I am pushed by an impulse to put an end to everything.”
“Oh, sorry.”
“Actually, it is congenital. My mother too suffered from it,” he told me.
Giving me a close look, he asked, “Anything wrong?” 
“Well … nothing.”
“We hardly know each other and I am being personal.  I can understand if you don’t want to share.”
I did not respond.
“I am Amar Khurana. Please treat me as a friend, and order a coffee for me too.”
I did and said, “I am Samar Banerjee.” 
“Life is tough business,” he said. 
I looked up.
“Yes. There’s no end to challenges. Especially if you are in an Ad Agency.”
That was uncanny.
“What do you know about the Ad world and how?
“I ran an Ad Agency.”
“Oh, how wonderful! I immediately brightened up. So you can help me.
“Yes, in every possible way.”
“I am not able to coin a good slogan for a talcum powder?”
“Which language?’
“Hindi.”
“Give me a couple of minutes.” 
He closed his eyes and kept sipping coffee till it was nearly finished. I ordered two more for us.
“Okay, how do you like this? “Har lamha mehkaai.’”
Or “Iss Valentine deejiye phoolon ke mehak, Or … …” he went on. I stopped him. 
“I will choose one of them. They are all good.”
“Thanks.”
#
The Boss looked up, smiled and nodded. 
“I like it.”
Khurana and I met the next evening, and then every evening. Our time was fixed and so was the table and the menu. Three-four cups of coffee. We’d chat about the intricacies and the corruption of the Ad world. 
“That is why I closed my Agency. Highly exaggerated, sometimes absolutely false claims for a product are sold through clever messaging, and celebrities. It is unethical.  But we had to go along. Or else we won’t survive. There is no regulatory body to verify the claims.”

We also discussed the exploitation of the young, aspiring models whose aim was to work for the television serials, or films. “The Director, Producer, even the cameraman tasted a new entrant, sometimes for months. I felt guilty and disgusted, but could not chastise the rascals. They were talented and would walk out, I knew,” he said.
“You are spot on. I am aware of all this,” I said.
“Parental property and a huge sum in FDs and shares was more than enough for me.  Besides I had also earned and saved a big sum. Enough is enough I decided and shut shop.” 
Khurana continued to help me with the slogans.  The most memorable were:  “Is chaand par daag kyon? Jab hai Moonglow cream” for a beauty lotion. And “’Add smiles to your life,’” for a toothpaste. The Baldie, I mean the Boss, was thrilled.
In the meantime, I got back my creative touch and one after the other I created stunning slogans. 

Meeting Khurana every evening had become a habit. But suddenly he stopped coming. For about a month, he did not come. Thank God I had taken his address and phone number.
On a Sunday I called his phone. A recorded message played out:  the number you want to reach does not exist. Next Sunday I decided to visit him at his house in New Friend’s Colony in South Delhi.
My cab got stuck in a vicious traffic jam at Ashram Chowk. I reached New Friend’s Colony around 10:45 PM and pressed the bell. In winter at this time there is a hush and the lanes are deserted.  
 
After a long while, a man opened the door.
“Is Mr. Khurana at home?”
He looked at me suspiciously.
“Who are you? And why do you want to meet him?
I told him about myself. “We are friends. We have been meeting at the Café Coffee Day in CP.
“When did you meet him last?”
“Well, about a month back.”
“Please come in.” 
I was happy at the prospect of meeting my friend.
The drawing room was gorgeous. The walls were dotted with Amrita Sher-Gil, Raja Ravi Verma, and M.F. Husain.
“These are Papa’s selections,” the son told me. 
“He seems to be a connoisseur of art.” 
“Yes.”
A servant brought coffee in Bone China and the famous American cookies,
‘Oreo’
“He is a coffee freak,” said the son. 
“I know. We consumed three to four cups in one sitting,” I said.
The son smiled. His smile was a little skewed. Poor thing, he must have suffered from Bell’s Palsy, I thought. 
After about twenty minutes, I said “Could you please tell him Samar Banerjee is here?”
“I can’t. I mean not right away.”
“Sorry?”
“Yes, because he is not here.”
“Where is he then?”
“Up above. He is no more,” he raised his thumb upwards.
“Oh no. When did it happen?”
“About five years back.” 
“Oh no. But you were using present tense for him?”
“Yes. Because he visits us off and on.”
“I don’t get you.”
“I don’t blame you.”
Meanwhile his wife, a beautiful lady of about thirty five joined us. Her skin was excessively pale and eyes lustreless. She seemed to have come out of a long sickness.
“You two are not scared?” I asked.
“On the contrary, both of us are fond of him.”
The lady’s face remained impassive.
And then something strange happened. The son smiled for no reason. This time the lady joined him, but her smile was crooked too.
Suddenly, I bolted through the door which was still open.

An auto was parked at a distance from the house and I rushed to hire it.
But on seeing me coming out of that house, he sped away.

3 comments :

  1. Subhash chandra ji has this uncanny knack of deftly twisting the tale in the end , leaving the reader gasping. Kudos !

    ReplyDelete
  2. " Yes. Because he visits us off and on.”

    “I don’t get you.”

    “I don’t blame you.”

    beautiful story and your grasp over workings of the Ad world is indeed praise worthy.
    “I don’t blame you.”

    beautiful story and your grasp over workings of the Ad world is indeed praise worthy.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A gripping story! Enjoyed reading

    ReplyDelete

We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।