Wrestling inner demons in Mumbai’s corporate jungles

Excerpt from a new translation of well-known Kannada writer Yashwant Chittal’s 1979 masterpiece on Bombay’s cut-throat corporate world, translated by Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger

Amidst the soulless chaos of a city waking to yet another grimy day, the solitary banyan tree in the middle of the lane stood as a symbol of life, rising above the man-made mayhem and monotony. Nagappa loved looking at it.

As he now stood staring at its dark silence, waiting for the magical moment when the rising sun would light up its leafy green canopy, he thought of something and decided to write it down later: It’s foolish to write a poem on a rose bush when the entire village is burning. (Perhaps, writing poetry itself is foolish.) But if we were to question why the village was burning, we would realize that it was because mankind forgot to love the rose bush. Writing a poem about its beauty could have, perhaps, averted the conflagration. Because we have started exploiting nature for our own selfish needs, our way of perceiving nature itself has changed in the last few centuries. In a sprawling city like this, one hardly sees nature’s creation in its pure form, amidst the throng of lifeless, manmade objects standing on the foundation of our arrogance. And we have reached a point where we have started using even living things as if they were lifeless objects . . .

Nagappa realized that while he stood looking out of the window to get into the mood to write, an unknown part of his mind was unconsciously thinking of the inquiry Phiroz had set up and was going to conduct. What connection can I possibly have with the fire accident at the Hyderabad factory? he wondered. I wasn’t even in Hyderabad then. It had been over three months since I had been transferred to the Bombay office. He smiled at the absurdity of the situation, but realized that while his fist remained unclenched, his body was still rigid with tension. There isn’t a shred of evidence against me, he assured himself. How can Phiroz even think of framing me? And why?

And why now? Why when the families of those who died in the accident have received compensation from our company and the insurance money? The underwriters themselves had issued a statement to the press that the fire had not been caused by either arson or due to negligence on the company’s part.

But Nagappa knew the fire was caused due to negligence. And a few people knew that he knew.

The industrial disaster took place in the division manufacturing peroxide from methyl ethyl ketone. Let alone manufacturing it, even its storing and transportation was considered hazardous, as it is a highly flammable substance that could explode at the slightest impact or friction. As a precaution, peroxide was mixed with phthalates and plasticizers to make it less hazardous and combustible, and filled in carboys and polyethylene bottles and stored in concrete bunkers, away from the main building. Customers’ orders were dispatched directly from the bunkers. The factory manager and the technical manager had taken the necessary precautions in this regard. However, the measures were directed more at saving company property, rather than taking care of the safety and health hazards faced by the workers. The workers had not been adequately trained about the precautions to be taken.

Nagappa had expressed his concern and dissatisfaction about the safety measures several times in front of a few of his colleagues. Instead of paying attention to him, the authorities had tried to brush aside his warnings. When the matter had gone up to Phiroz, as the DMD, he had strictly warned Nagappa not to interfere in matters that didn’t concern him.

Though it was well-known that Nagappa’s technical expertise was unmatched in the entire organization, the top management thought he could easily be swayed by emotions, and wasn’t very pragmatic by nature. They were worried about the repercussions if his fears about the hazards posed by chemicals to the workers reached the office bearers of the workers’ union. That was the reason why they resented his ‘stupid interference’. But Nagappa thought the workers were needlessly being exposed to a dangerous working environment, not out of necessity, but because of the slack attitude of Phiroz and his minions.

Nagappa had taken it upon himself to write to reputed companies in the UK, the United States and Germany, which manufactured peroxide, and got manuals on the standard precautionary measures to be taken. He had sent those to both the MD and the DMD, along with memos specifically stating for the record that he had sent them the manuals. The DMD couldn’t contain his anger when he received them. Nagappa shook, remembering how he had been summoned to the DMD’s cabin and given a dressing down. More than anything, Phiroz was angry that Nagappa had addressed the memo directly to the MD. ‘Don’t try to bypass my authority. Remember, you report to me and not to the MD!’ he had thundered.

But the matter had not ended there. The news of Nagappa’s humiliation had spread across the factory—from supervisors to office boys and watchmen. He came to know rather late that the smear campaign was a part of a carefully planned conspiracy hatched by the factory manager. He felt mortified and couldn’t speak to anyone for days. As the R&D manager with an excellent reputation, being scolded like an errant child was a loss of face for Nagappa. The worst blow to his sensitive and withdrawing nature came when the girls in the administration department who thought highly of him—or at least he thought they did—gave him strange glances and laughed among themselves whenever he passed by. The telephone operator, Reena, was an exception. She had called him on his intercom one morning and said, ‘Don’t worry. Keep calm and keep your cool. Everything will be all right.’ Nagappa’s eyes had moistened at this reassurance and kindness from such an unexpected quarter. Though he was aware that Jalal Husain had just entered his cabin, Nagappa had said in a shaky voice, ‘Thank you, Reena. Thank you so much! It’s so sweet of you. I need your . . . I need your . . .’ He was about to say, ‘your good wishes’, but the line got cut. Probably, the DMD must have walked into her office or she must have got a call.

(Excerpted with permission from Shikari – The Hunt by Yashwant Chittal. Translated by Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger, Penguin Books)

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