‘The Current Climate’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
The new branch manager, Mr. Chandru, noticed the idol as soon as he entered the bank. It stood on a white pedestal in the centre of the foyer, was about two feet tall and depicted Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha sitting together. It looked heavy—possibly made out of brass—though he couldn’t be sure. Once Mr. Chandru introduced himself to the staff and learned their names, he asked to have the idol moved into the storeroom. By then, it was his second day at work.
The bank branch was a shoebox with around 25 staff. Apart from one Muslim loan officer named Asif and two Christian tellers, they were all Hindu like him. Anyway, it wasn’t the denomination of the staff that mattered to Mr. Chandru. What mattered was that they were a national establishment, and the nation was secular. Religious artefacts had no place being displayed so prominently in the bank.
Mr. Chandru’s order was received with some reluctance. He’d expected this, given the general climate. He’d looked forward to explaining himself too. During his college days—a long time ago now—he had been involved in some local politics. In his final year, he had even published not one but two revolutionary poems in a magazine run by the student body.
Such experiences had little to do with banking, but as they’d said at one of his management seminars, when you take charge of an office, you’re in charge not only of the staff but also of the culture.
Amit Agarwal, the assistant manager, was the first to react. He’d listened to Mr. Chandru’s explanation and nodded with a sullen expression. Having to explain in Hindi, Mr. Chandru, a South Indian, felt he had been less eloquent than he’d hoped.
‘But you’re a Hindu, sir?’ Agarwal said.
‘Yes, but that’s beside the point.’
‘It’s just that the idol gives us a feeling of protection. Nothing political, sir.’
‘I’d like to have it removed, nonetheless. That’s all.’
After some hesitation, Agarwal left his cabin. Later, almost as an afterthought, he popped his head around the door to extend a dinner invitation to Mr. Chandru for the following night.
Mr. Chandru was not only new to the branch but also to the town where he’d been posted. The bank had provided him with a one-storey, two-bedroom house that wasn’t too far from work. The house was small, but it came with a dining table, a double bed, a stove, a velvet sofa, a fridge, a television and a small wall-mounted enclave that was supposed to serve as a pooja unit. The dusty floor was mosaic and the windows dirty. Everything needed a thorough cleaning. Mr. Chandru had planned to do just that, but by the time he got back from work, the temperature had dropped to a single digit. The sky had turned grey, and a sharp wind had picked up.
Unused to this sort of cold, Mr. Chandru felt tired and lazy. He boiled some rice in a cooker, made dal and ate it by the small red heater he’d borrowed from his cabin. Afterwards, he washed up and sat wrapped in a blanket, watching the news and thinking about the day’s events. Something about the cold and the bland food made him uncomfortable. It was homesickness, he decided—that’s all.
When the power went, Mr. Chandru pulled the blanket even closer and wished the stray dogs outside would stop howling. If he felt spooked, it was only for a moment. Soon his wife and his son would join him. Things would start to fall into place, and he would feel better about everything.
The idol was still there when Mr. Chandru reached work the next day. Now it became a matter of insubordination or at least laziness. Either way, it wasn’t good. Most of the staff members had already arrived. Those who were walking in wished him a good morning.
Mr. Chandru went around looking for a peon, then failing to find anyone, he decided to move the idol himself. This would not only make the peons feel bad but would also establish that he was a hands-on manager who wasn’t afraid to sweat a little, if need be.
The idol was heavier than he had anticipated. Having picked it up, though, there was no way he could put it back down without looking foolish. Even though he felt several eyes on him, no one stepped forward to help. Perhaps they were unsure of his exact intentions or didn’t want to be overfamiliar.
Wobbly, and thinking he probably looked comical, Mr. Chandru carried the idol some 25 feet, pushed open the storeroom door with his shoulders and placed it on a metal table that was covered with dust. Among the broken computers and loose racks of dumped files, he found a piece of white cloth, shook it twice and covered the idol. That done, he closed the door with an officious air and went back to his cabin, sneezing so hard he felt some of his hair come loose. That morning as Mr. Chandru was doing his rounds, he wondered if Asif didn’t look somewhat happier. He even sensed some admiration in Asif’s smile.
When Asst Manager Agarwal came to his cabin later that day, Mr. Chandru said, ‘By the way, I moved the idol to the storeroom myself.’
In between licking his finger and turning a page of the file he was checking, Agarwal looked up and nodded. ‘Okay, sir.’
That was all he said, though something in his tone didn’t feel quite right—so much so that in the evening, Mr. Chandru wondered if the dinner invitation that had been extended to him the day before was still valid. It wasn’t that he pined for friendship; just that he hated the thought of going back and eating yesterday’s food.
Thankfully, at precisely six, Agarwal came in and asked him if he was done with work. Mr. Chandru packed his case, got in his old Maruti car—freshly shipped—and followed the other man’s bike. Agarwal’s house was farther from the bank than the house Mr. Chandru had been allotted, and when they arrived, he saw that it was noticeably smaller too.
His wife was a thin woman who looked much more dignified than the man she had married. She wore a plain housecoat—clearly not dressed to receive a guest, especially her husband’s boss.
‘So good to have you here,’ she said.
‘Thank you for having me,’ Mr. Chandru said.
Dinner was served as soon as they entered the house. Nothing fancy: white rice, chickpeas, a few tough rotis, aloo jeera and spiced curd. Agarwal’s wife was quiet throughout the meal and, at one point, apologised for not cooking non-veg.
‘We are not used to that kind of food here,’ she said.
Maybe he was reading too much into it, but the statement felt like a barb.
‘I hardly eat any non-vegetarian food myself,’ Mr. Chandru said. This was a lie, though he didn’t know why he had bothered to say so considering that he didn’t care about sparing the woman’s feelings.
After dinner, there was no dessert and no apology for this omission. Maybe it wasn’t customary. What did he know?
In all, by the time Mr. Chandru was done, he was tired and a little bit offended.
‘Do you know the way back, sir?’ Agarwal asked him.
‘I can manage, yes.’
The town was small, and most of the roads were an unpaved mess. Several of the shop signs were written only in Hindi, and there were hardly any vehicles on the road. Most shops had been shuttered already. Streetlights were few and far between. Every now and then, he would pass a pool of construction workers huddled around a tyre fire. Broken bottles, garbage bags and, at one junction, a burned bus lay on the side of the road. A thin fog started to gather under his windshield.
No sooner had Mr. Chandru reached home than he latched his door. He looked out of the peephole at the compound. For some reason, he had the feeling that he was being followed. It was nonsense, but still, a feeling was a feeling. He switched on the heater and squatted in front of it, wiping his wet nose. He had marked the date of his wife’s arrival on the calendar pinned to the living room wall. He looked at it for reassurance and thought, almost there.
Later, Mr. Chandru noticed through his front window several figures carrying flashlights and walking about on the road outside his house. They were only there for a few minutes.
When the idol reappeared in the office foyer the following day, Mr. Chandru stood in front of it, baffled. He summoned the peon who was supposed to remove it in the first place, before he had done so himself.
‘Why is this back here?’ Mr. Chandru hissed.
The peon scratched his head and mumbled that he had no idea.
Then his finger shot up. ‘It’s the other fellow!’ he said. ‘The other peon, sir. He was on leave till now. He must have thought we put it aside for cleaning. But I’ll take care of it, sir. I’ll remove it. Maybe I should find another place for it besides the storeroom?’
‘Not in the foyer, and not on display.’ With that, Mr. Chandru went into his cabin and closed the door.
He was unaware of the confabulations that went on in the background, but when he returned from lunch that afternoon, Mr. Chandru was told that a priest from the local temple was waiting in his cabin.
‘Why is he here?’
‘No idea, sir,’ the peon said.
Mr. Chandru grew nervous but told himself that perhaps the man was there to ask about a loan or make a quick introduction.
The priest did not get up when Mr. Chandru walked in. Instead, he gestured towards the foyer.
‘It’s not a good idea to have something like this gathering dust in the building,’ he said. ‘In fact, it’s a bad omen. If it’s okay with you, I’ll have the idol placed in the temple. I’m sure we can find a spot for it.’
Mr. Chandru tried to project the same manner of seriousness that the priest was putting on.
‘If you think that works, you have my blessing,’ he said.
‘Then we’ll send someone next week to get the idol.’
After the priest left, Mr. Chandru wondered if his use of the word ‘blessing’ had been too mocking, even though he hadn’t intended it to be.
He found himself thinking about this all evening. Maybe once his wife arrived, they could visit the temple together and have a proper introduction.
That night, there was another power cut in his lane. Mr. Chandru would have missed it, but the dead heater made it impossible to stay asleep. Feeling a lump in his throat, he decided to make himself a glass of hot tea. As soon as he opened the bedroom door, he heard the dogs. And closer than the dogs, he heard voices. He parted the curtains and saw people holding flashlights. They were standing in front of his house, deep in conversation. He waited for them to pass, then tried to assure himself that in all likelihood, these were no more than labourers unloading goods late at night to avoid union trouble.
Mr. Chandru couldn’t sleep well the entire week. His ears kept tuning into whatever was going on outside. Everything bothered him: the creatures scuttling across the terrace, the tumble and drag of dry leaves that had begun to accumulate in his compound. Even when there was no sound out there, his brain catalogued it as something palpable.
The following Monday, Mr. Chandru stepped on dog shit. It was on his porch, right outside his door. He lifted his leg and frowned at the floor.
The main gate had abnormally wide slats. It was entirely possible, extremely plausible even, that a dog would have wandered in and done the deed on his doorstep.
Still, Mr. Chandru stood there, staring at his soiled shoe for a long time. He took it off, inspected the underside and retched as the smell met his nose. Then he took a short walk around the compound, looking for human signs in the mud: footprints, a pan masala wrapper, something…
By the time he washed up and left for work, he was late. A few employees tittered, probably making fun of the big speech he’d given about punctuality just last week.
Mr. Chandru checked the date on his watch. Three days till his family got here. It made him nervous.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ the peon said, pressing his face against the glass wall of his cabin. ‘The men from the temple called. They want to know if they can come get the idol today.’
Mr. Chandru was in a meeting with a local seth, a jewel merchant who owned a two-storey building in the centre of town—one of the few that showed a recent coat of paint. The interruption annoyed Mr. Chandru. What annoyed him even more was the fact he’d been put on the spot.
‘Tell them to check with me later,’ Mr. Chandru said quickly.
When the peon left, the seth said, ‘I was wondering where the idol went. It used to be the first thing you saw walking in. Are you getting it cleaned?’
Mr. Chandru said it was in the storeroom for the day, then started discussing a new credit scheme.
Mr. Chandru’s wife and son were arriving on the last train into town. He drove up to the two-platform station and waited for them in the cold. It was past 11, and as he had come to expect, the train was late. From the car, Mr. Chandru grabbed a shawl, wrapped it around himself and began pacing the length of the platform. The only other person there was a homeless man sleeping against a large sack of cement. Mr. Chandru avoided looking in his direction.
Occasionally, sharp sounds of clashing metal came from further down the tracks. It startled Mr. Chandru each time he heard it. His breath came out as heavy puffs of mist.
Finally, just as he considered calling up the bigger station a few kilometres north, a slow train crept up to the platform and came to a stop. The only passengers who got off were his wife and, asleep on her shoulder, their six-year-old son. Mr. Chandru took their bags and hurried them into the car. Even when they got inside, they were too cold to talk. Mr. Chandru asked if the journey was okay, then without listening to the muttered answer, started the car. The engine revved but after that, went silent.
‘What’s the matter?’ his wife asked.
‘Must be the cold,’ Mr. Chandru said, trying to keep his voice calm. ‘Everything was fine when I got here.’
Could someone have snipped a wire or loosened a screw?
Mr. Chandru turned the key again—so hard, he feared it might break off. The car spluttered and went silent.
‘I told you, we should have bought a new car a long time ago,’ his wife said, trying to sound playful.
Mr. Chandru didn’t respond. In his rearview mirror, he noticed two men approaching. By now the fog had picked up, and it felt like they were in a slowly sinking boat.
‘Lock your door,’ Mr. Chandru said.
‘Lock your door.’
In the back seat, his son woke up and rubbed his eyes.
The men approached Mr. Chandru’s side of the car.
The fatter of the two asked, ‘Brother, is everything okay?’
‘Yes,’ Mr. Chandru said. ‘All good.’
‘No no; I’m sure it’ll start in a second.’
‘We’ll give you a push if you want.’
‘That’s okay. It’s all good.’
The other man asked, ‘You have fuel in the tank?’
‘Yes. Full tank.’
‘Then all you need is a push. You’ll have to come out and help, though. My hand is sprained.’
‘It really is alright,’ Mr. Chandru said. ‘We’ll manage.’
Then he turned the key one more time. Suddenly, the engine came to life. Mumbling a quick thank you, he accelerated faster than was safe on such bumpy roads.
That night too, Mr. Chandru heard people outside his front gate. With his wife and son asleep, he came out to the living room to check the windows. Again, there were those flashlights and soft-footed scurrying. He watched the figures through his curtains, then once they were gone, lay down on the couch, unable to fall asleep.
The next day, Mr. Chandru called the peon to his office and asked him to return the idol to the pedestal in the foyer.
The peon stood there for a few seconds, his mouth half-open.
‘Just move it from the storeroom to the foyer,’ he said, slowly, as though the peon were an idiot. ‘Then leave it there till someone from the temple picks it up. Understood?’
‘Yes, sir. I’ll do so right away.’
Later that evening, when the temple called, Mr. Chandru declined to talk to them. They called the following day and then again, later in the week. Both times, he pretended to be busy. Finally, they stopped calling altogether.
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