On official duty

Mr Krishnan was a senior officer of the government. Everything about him testified to this fact. He was neat and tidy. He was meticulous and organised. He was careful with his words and his money. He was deliberate and restrained, almost slow in his reactions. It did not matter whether the issue was the next major change in the country’s environment policy or simply about the best flight to take to Geneva. His mind, trained through thirty-three years of a demanding bureaucratic career, would go through the automatic process of weighing the pros against the cons, and the decision, mature and well-considered, would present itself.

As their plane touched down at the small, neat and picturesque Cointrin airport at Geneva, the two younger officers travelling with Mr Krishnan silently admired his decision to take this particular flight. It had brought them in just after lunch. That left the entire summer afternoon and evening free, with the meeting only scheduled to begin the next day. They would be able to look around the city, go for a walk around the famous lake and perhaps even finish off the obligatory shopping for chocolates and cheese. Mr Krishnan’s experienced paperwork had even ensured that they would have much of the Saturday after the meeting in Geneva, ostensibly for ‘further consultations’. These would surely not last the whole day and would leave them some more time to take in the sights. It was clear to them that being with a man like Mr Krishnan was a good thing, and that they had done well to endear themselves to him.

At the baggage belt, Mr Krishnan asked them in his gentle measured tones if they had been comfortable at the back of the plane, but his one eye was peeled for his suitcase. Mr Krishnan was always inwardly tense about his baggage. But he thought it a weakness to show this, and preferred to keep up a calm front.

‘It always comes, you must have faith in that,’ he told the younger officers. ‘In ninety-nine point nine cases it will turn up. When you travel a lot you have to develop a faith in the system; otherwise you become like Ganguly. He is so paranoid that he is worried about his baggage even when he is touring by car. He stops the car at least once every hundred kilometres and checks that his suitcase is in the boot.’

The young officers smiled at the story. They had, of course, heard it before. But Mr Krishnan did not tell them that despite his faith in the system he always carried all his valuables and an emergency set of shirt, trousers and tie in the burgundy-coloured leather satchel in his hand. This satchel had been his faithful companion on many journeys abroad. It was an old satchel – the leather had developed cracks and the golden buttons had long lost their shine. But Mr Krishnan did not want to part with it, essentially because it could stretch effortlessly to hold his emergency kit in addition to the official papers.

At the hotel Mr Krishnan was quick and efficient with the embassy official who had been detailed to receive them. It was another of his self-imposed rules that he never complained about the hotel rooms that the embassies selected. He had seen other officers demand lake-facing rooms or rooms with a balcony, which to him sounded petty. He regarded a hotel room as an essential space in which one had to sleep for a night or two. This one was as good as any other. It had a decent bed, a sofa set, a writing desk with a stationery pad, a bowl of fruit and, no doubt, a perfectly functional washroom.

He took the blue folder that the official was carrying. It contained a white envelope with his allowance. Mr Krishnan glanced at the money and put it into his inner coat pocket. Then he signed the three copies of the voucher and handed back two, keeping one for his record. The folder also contained a list of telephone numbers, a country note with tips for visitors, a map of Geneva, and an invitation card for a dinner at the house of one of the embassy officers. He kept the folder near the telephone on the bedside table. The formalities done, the official left, grateful that he had not been asked to stay on and assist with a shopping trip.

But that was not Mr Krishnan’s style. He had come here to work, and work would be attended to first. He quickly unpacked. He hung up the navy blue and the grey pinstriped suits in the cupboard, noting that they had been slightly crushed at the shoulders. He put the four white shirts in a neat pile on the shelf and settled his ties and socks in the chest of drawers. Then a quick wash and change into a comfortable brown cardigan and pistachio-green slacks, and he was ready to receive his two younger colleagues. Although there was a whole afternoon before them, he liked to get this bit over with. They sat on the sofa, sipped orange juice and went through the agenda of the meeting. Mr Krishnan outlined the strategy and apportioned the work. He told them what to say and how to say it and the bottom lines for the negotiations. They would stick to those bottom lines. He kept the fallback positions to himself. If any flexibility was to be shown, he would do it himself as and when he deemed fit. Then the two younger officers left the room, secure in the knowledge that he would not need them for the rest of the day.

Mr Krishnan swept aside the curtain and stepped onto the little balcony outside the room. He leaned on the carved iron railing and took in the view. It was a late April afternoon, sunny and bright. The lake was an iridescent blue and the famous Geneva fountain was sending its white spray into a deep-blue sky. Colourful flags lined the famous bridge across the lake. The old town rose above the lake and was topped off by the spire of the imposing cathedral. Behind it all, he could see clearly the shoulder of Mont Blanc with its eternal snow. It was a day to walk.

Making a quick decision, he stepped back into the room and shut the door. He changed into a pair of soft black corduroy walking shoes without which he never left home. He had discovered such shoes during one of his early postings in a small hill-district capital and found them ideal for walking. Since then he regularly bought a pair once every two years. He put on a spring overcoat that he had wisely packed after watching the weather forecasts on satellite TV. He did not have a cap, he thought, as he looked into the full-length mirror. He ran a hand tentatively over his head, balding at the centre. The silver growth that framed the bald patch was allowed to grow an extra half-inch in length as if to make up for it. The navy-blue spring coat did not quite match the brown cardigan, pistachio-green slacks and black corduroy shoes. You would think that he was the kind to whom it mattered. But such things had not mattered to Mr Krishnan for years. He was a man concerned only with essentials, and the essential thing was to walk and not catch a cold in the process.

As he stepped onto the promenade by the lake, Mr Krishnan buttoned his coat up to his collar and tucked his hands into the pockets. He began to walk fast to get his exercise. He was used to walking regularly every morning in the Lodhi gardens in Delhi. In fact he was so regular every morning that his wife could time herself by his departure and arrival. At 6.30 he would leave for his walk. At 7.05 he would return and sit down with his tea and the newspaper. Halfway through the newspaper, at 7.15, he would say, ‘I’ll give one hundred rupees to anyone who says that I don’t need to go to office today.’ No matter what the newspaper said about inflation, the hundred rupees never changed. At 7.30 it was always, ‘Why can’t I ever find my comb?’ And at around 8.10, ‘I say. I am getting late and today there are very important meetings.’

He had missed his morning walk back in Delhi and intended to make up for it. So he walked quickly and purposefully, scarcely glancing at the shop displays, having decided years ago that nothing, except perhaps medicine, should be bought abroad. But it was difficult to walk fast along the low parapet that bounded the lake. There were youngsters twirling in merriment on rollerblades, there were toddlers clutching colourful ice creams, there were lovers holding onto eternity on the benches, there were white sails dancing and flitting on the blue water and there were the delightful clouds wafting overhead. There was a strange freedom in the air, a carefree atmosphere pervaded the summer afternoon. It was overwhelming. For a moment Mr Krishnan resisted and then, without quite knowing when, he became part of it. He slackened his pace, his arms relaxed and his face softened. The lake became a deeper blue as he gazed upon it and he felt a sharp sense of beauty. He leaned against the promenade wall as if seeking strength from it. A man, his light-blue shirt open to the waist and a cigarette dangling from his lips, was standing on a high stepladder and carving a larger-than-life stone statue of an embracing couple. Mr Krishnan watched the man as he made sharp jabs with his chisel to evoke a shoulder muscle out of stone. In fact he watched him for a long time, lost in the relentless effort of the sculptor to make the stone give up its primordial form.

Just then, a familiar yet long-forgotten smell wafted up. It was the smell of hot chocolate sauce on fresh crepes from the stall nearby. In an instant it took Mr Krishnan back many years. It took him back a lifetime. It took him back to a week he had spent in Paris. He had been a student on his way back from London with his university degree. For a week he had tramped around Montmartre and eaten crepes with hot chocolate sauce every single day at the little shop in the corner of the famous artists’ square. It had been all so new, so magical. It had been the beginning of things. Everything, even the fresh crepes, had been a grand adventure. For a week he had wallowed in that adventure, watching the artists with their instant portraits, dabbing paint on canvases, cutting fascinating profiles of passersby out of black paper, playing flutes and violins. He had caught at random the music that flew out of the twilight bars. He had sat on the wide steps below the huge cathedral, a can of beer in his hand, and watched the typical overcast grey beauty of the Parisian sky. He had made friends, laughed spontaneously and perhaps, for a moment or two, even felt passion. Then he had tucked away that week under piles of discipline, folded it away in swathes of regularity and tied up the whole package with the suffocating ribbon of duty.

Much had been achieved in the years that followed. There had been success, security, recognition and even love, for Mr Krishnan had performed all his roles with distinction and aplomb. And now he was only a year and a half away from retirement, the moment of release that would also take away in its wake so much that had become so important.

Mr Krishnan looked up to see that the lights had come on in the windows of the hotels that lined the lakefront. The traffic had increased. It was time for people to be going home from office. Three decades had gone like that, just going to office and coming back. And it was only that week in Paris that haunted him still.

Deep inside, Mr Krishnan felt a long-lost beckoning. His disciplined mind went through the pros and cons, and the decision presented itself. Then he went back to the hotel and changed into the grey pinstriped suit. He changed the comfortable walking shoes for the formal leather pair. He carefully counted the amount of money in the neat white envelope and put it in his pocket. After a momentary hesitation, he left behind the spring overcoat. He wouldn’t be walking tonight. The concierge in the hotel lobby handed him a brochure and ordered a cab. It took him only twenty minutes to reach Divonne.

+++

Divonne is a small French village that borders on Geneva. It is tucked comfortably into the mountain and has a well-known chateau and a small lake. It has a lively fresh market on Sundays and a decent golf course. It also has a casino.

Mr Krishnan entered the casino with quiet authority and confidence. A hostess wearing a black backless dress guided him inside. He mused over the bar and finally ordered a single-malt whisky, hesitating only a moment before adding three cubes of ice. He walked through the casino holding his glass, sipping very occasionally, feeling the tiny drops slowly warm his insides. He picked up a bundle of coins at the change counter and went to the slot machines. For a few minutes he watched an old lady at the next machine. Neck bowed down with necklaces, hands trembling slightly, she played the machine relentlessly and without a minute’s break. Mr Krishnan followed her example and felt the exhilaration rising in his veins. Then, tired of the loneliness of the machine, he joined one of the green tables with three others and let himself go. He played through the night. He tried every game that the house had to offer. He refilled his glass at the bar several times. He laughed, he joked and he jibed. In a generous gesture he even bought a round of drinks for the group of young executives and fashion models that he joined for part of the night. When he finally left the casino it was still dark. But the dawn was not long in coming.

At 9.15 am, the two young officers knocked respectfully at Mr Krishnan’s door. They had slept well after an inexpensive meal and a walk around the lake. They had debated for a while whether to go for a show in one of the restaurants and then, on considerations of economy and health, had dropped the idea.

Mr Krishnan was waiting for them. As they came in he picked up his papers from the table and put them neatly into his briefcase. The white envelope that had contained his allowance was empty and he flicked it gently into the wastepaper basket. Just once, before leaving the room, he felt the bundle of folded and adventurous notes that he had collected on cashing his counters and which now lay in his inner pocket. Masking a tiny smile, he stepped out. He was ready for the negotiations.

~ Navtej Sarna is the author of the novels The Exile and We Weren’t Lovers Like That as well as works of non-fiction. He is presently India’s ambassador to Israel.