A Corporate Crow (I)
A huge, black, iris less eye stared at me.
I blinked. It didn’t.
I held on, unblinking, for a few seconds.
Then it got a little disturbing.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the eye was still there but this time it was attached to a profile. A black and white profile. With feathers.
And a bright red necktie.
I gaped at the apparition in front of me.
A crow. Who was, apparently, wearing a necktie. And not just any necktie. A bright red necktie. Not that its sartorial choices were my immediate concern. Definitely not when its sharp, pointed and decidedly scary beak was in the uncomfortable proximity of my face.
I blinked and shuffled backwards. Almost immediately, the crow opened its beak and a strange sound emanated from its throat.
The terrible, disconcerting sound of a ringing bell.
An unexplained, dull pain began radiating from somewhere around my lower back. I flailed around, my limbs tangled in something that I belatedly registered as my bed sheet.
It was a dream. And I was, currently, sprawled on the floor in an undignified heap of limbs, sheets and pillows.
The shrill, terrible sound of the ringing bell echoed again. And this time, I knew it wasn’t emanating from the vocal chords of some freaky, phantom crow. It was my doorbell which was barely managing to survive the assault of my impatient house maid.
I gathered myself from the floor, rearranged my clothes to a manageable level of decency and opened the door. The familiar, disproving scowl on my maid’s face registered the dawn of another morning in my life more effectively than any benign morning ritual.
I did not greet her. She scowled some more and proceeded to make a mess of my already messy house.
I, meanwhile, stared out of my bedroom window. The sun was bright and the traffic, deafening. It was another normal day in my terribly normal life. This normalcy was a reward — the one that I had earned by sticking by my life and its routines for last three years.
It was hard earned. I did not intend to let it go.
A crow came flapping through the misty haze of the morning smog and perched itself on my window ledge. It shuffled and preened, disconcertingly unconcerned by the fact that a half naked human was staring down at it.
It was clearly a veteran city crow.
I leaned back, abruptly reminded of my weird dream. I examined the crow on my window ledge, wondering if a red necktie would suit its disposition.
The crow abandoned its grooming routine and fixed its fathomless black dots of the eyes on me.
I leaned further away from the window and its prying gaze. I am reasonably sure that crows do not possess mindreading skills. But still, I did not want to risk it. Apart from the general unpleasantness of having a crow poking into my thoughts, there was also the matter of the red necktie and the righteous rage it might invite.
As an overarching idea, I liked my eyes. And had absolutely no intention of having them snatched off my face by a hostile beak.
I tried to shoo the crow away. It did not budge. I went into the kitchen and returned with a piece of bread. The crow accepted the bread, entirely too ungratefully but did not let the meager piece persuade it to leave my ledge.
I made a couple of more attempts to shoo it away. Eventually I gave up and resumed my routine. I had an office to attend, my raison d’être and it was far more important for me than being bothered by the encroachment of my personal space by a crow.
I am pretty sure my daily routine is not an engaging watch. The crow, however, seemed to think otherwise. It had either led an incredibly boring life or it was a distinguished pervert of its species. Although, even from the perversion angle, its fascination in the current situation was baffling. Still, it was an angle. And it was more than a little disturbing.
I craned my neck to sneak a glance at the crow as I stepped out of the bathroom and stood in front of the full size mirror in my bedroom. The crow stared at me with mild disinterest.
I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths to regain my composure. I needed to get dressed. I needed to make it to office in time. And I really needed to keep my sanity intact.
I stared at my towel clad reflection. A considerably older man was peering back at me from the mirror. There was no paunch but I think we were getting there. There were other standard add ons like the giant bags around my eyes and the stray grey hair that had aleady graduated into an entire tuft.
When I had first noticed these unintended and totally undesirable perks of a job that thrived on my stress and insomnia, I had freaked out.
Then, I got used to them.
I stared at my reflection for several minutes. Until I remembered the crow and found it staring at me while I stared at my reflection.
I hurried towards my cupboard, securing the towel around my waist with one hand and started looking for a set of clothes that were going to be my second skin for the rest of the ten, twelve or whatever number of hours this particular day was going to last.
I had long days. It was a part of my job description.
My cupboard was full of clothes. Most of them were white shirts. The rest of them were black trousers. There were also a handful of coats and blazers — most of them black, grey or blue. I also had a grand total of five ties. In five different colors. They seemed painfully out of place in a cupboard that resembled the stock footage for a black and white movie.
I picked up a fresh set of white shirt and black trousers and marched into the bathroom. I wasn’t getting dressed in that room. Not with that crow leering at me.
I pulled my car out of my apartment’s parking lot and braced myself for the traffic ridden 45 minutes, 3 kilometer drive ahead.
It was yet another day.
But something was wrong. There was a lingering sense of discomfort. A distant sense of approaching claustrophobia. A distinct sense of suffocation, mild but noticeable.
I fumbled around with the buttons of my car’s air conditioner. Everything was in order, just as it had always been.
I hooked a finger in my collar, craned my neck and tried to breathe. It worked but only momentarily. Exasperated, I took my tie off (plain blue one with stripes. Not red. Definitely not red) and opened the first button of my shirt.
The sense of relief that flooded my senses was indescribable.
I smiled, turned up the volume of the car’s music system and hummed all the way to the office. It was a lot of humming, given the fact that the traffic was particularly nasty that day. My mood, however, remained unaffected.
It was out of character. On an average day, my mood was susceptible to most innocuous of provocations. And a bad traffic day was anything but innocuous.
It was not an average day.
I pulled into my office’s parking lot and had a minor flash of crisis. In three years of my existence as a corporate lawyer who made more money in a month than an entire court full of lawyers back in my hometown did in an entire year, I had never stepped into my office without a tie.
I made a lot of money. It was an ancillary benefit of the corporatization of the legal industry in this country. And the fact that there were more than a handful of law-schools that prided themselves in being the Ivy League equivalent of this part of the World and worked exceptionally hard to bring to life the dream like world of slick corporate firms, formerly only found on our television sets as highly glamorized American dramas.
It was a ridiculous pursuit, which had surprisingly been a success. And hence, corporate lawyers with eyebrow singing pay packages were a part of the reality of this country. It was indeed an American dream, brought to life outside America.
Unless of course you were living that dream. Because then it got confounding in a way where you absolutely lost the capability to fathom whether it was a dream that had lost its plot, a vivid nightmare that refused to let you escape or an elaborate gamble designed to keep you on your toes, never letting you know whether it was a win or a loss.
The dilemma that had me stuck in my office’s parking lot, however, had nothing to do with the philosophical meditation on the meaning of my existence as a corporate lawyer. It was a much more immediate and pressing matter.
It was about the necktie. And the unexpected upheaval it had led to in my hitherto uncomplicated and meticulously systematic life.
I eyed the tie on my dashboard, curled in a deceptively harmless and non-threatening posture. But, I was not fooled. There was still a dull ache in my chest, a phantom sensation of having been underwater a little too long. It was a stinging reminder of why that tie was not around my neck anymore.
It was unprecedented. My own tie had never tried to strangle me before. And I had never, ever considered not putting it around my neck.
Obviously, the tie had started it.
I took a deep, determined breath, looked at the tie one last time and stepped out of my car.
Much to my surprise, the sky didn’t fall. The lights of the elevator didn’t flicker. And the automatic doors of the office did not refuse to open for my tie-less self.
It was just like any other day. Only better. And while I continued to feel a little uncomfortable in my own skin, the overall sense of well being was inexplicably very high.
There were minor hiccups. Like a sour senior who eyed me disapprovingly, fixing a very pointed gaze at my tie-less collar. I lowered my eyes and sneaked past him, desperately hoping that he would not stop me to give me a dressing down.
I stifled my involuntary snigger at my own choice of phrase as I walked towards my cubicle, nestled right in the middle of over two dozen of its clones. It was my cozy, little workstation, littered with stacks of papers and files that were higher than the paper thin fiber barriers that separated it from the rest of my colleagues’ personal work heavens. It was my second home where I spent my days with the realization that the black letter of law was a little too black. And a little too boring. This was also the place where I ate, slept and generally lived the majority of my life, sharing my life, my thoughts, my conversations and my secrets with everyone within ear shot. It was the kind of sharing that did not require my participation or consent. It just happened, because privacy in these cubicles was merely an illusion, a fantasy that most of us chose to believe in.
I settled in my cubicle, gave a brief nod to the colleagues around me, opened my laptop and braced myself for several hours of black and white drudgery. Within minutes of logging in, my intercom buzzed. My boss wanted to see me.
The absence of the tie around my neck hit me like a sledgehammer of nerves. I had to face my boss. Without my tie.
I wasn’t ready for it.
I adjusted my collar and approached her desk, my legs wobbling like a badly set jelly. She looked up after five long and agonizing minutes, still distracted by the papers in her hand. But, as soon as her eyes landed on me, there was a pause.
A long, effective pause.
“Your tie?”, she asked, an eyebrow raised.
“Is in the car”, I said, a little shifty. I knew am explanation was probably warranted. But I didn’t have one, unless of course, my boss was willing to discuss the gory tale of my homicidal tie. But, I highly suspected if it was really the line of conversation that she would appreciate.
Besides, I wasn’t a rookie associate anymore. After three years in this office, going tie-less without an explanation was my rightfully earned privilege. And while I was aware that this kind of opinion was in an under-appreciated minority, at least this once, I was willing to go with it.
It was weird. Like the absence of tie was messing with my thoughts — my whole personality. It was scary. And exhilarating.
My boss blinked. I think that was her look of surprise. But since emotions of any kind, unless they were some version of anger or annoyance, were an unknown entity on her face, it was hard to say.
“Don’t go to the client meetings without your tie.”, she said, her voice neutral.
I nodded, releasing a breath I had not even realized I had been holding.
I was tie less. And my boss did not mind. I was pretty sure somewhere in some part of the world, pigs were flying.
The next day, I woke up after an awfully short night of fitful sleep. Just because my boss was okay with me not wearing a tie did not mean she had been transformed into a kind, considerate human who refrained from swamping me with work that, in an alternate, saner Universe, was meant to be handled by at least four people of exceptional competence.
It had been a long, tiring day that did not even have the good grace to allow me a full night of sleep. I should have woken up cranky and forlorn. Instead, my mood was upbeat. It had to be one of the first mornings of my life that I was happy to meet without any accountable reason.
I was in a happy daze for the majority of the morning. At least until I stepped into the bedroom to get dressed and my eyes fell on the window ledge.
The crow was back.
It was uncanny. And deeply troubling. My happy daze morphed into visceral paranoia that sent a shiver down my spine. I turned back to the ledge, determinedly ignored the crow while I got dressed. But it was impossible. My eyes kept darting towards its reflection in my mirror. I finished dressing and pulled out a tie, a mustard-yellow one, more out of habit than any real, active desire to sport it. And almost as soon as I laid my hand on the tie, it seemed painfully out of place.
While I held the tie in front of me, my eyes caught the crow’s reflection again. Right on cue, it raised its head, peered at the tie in my hand and looked away, puffing its chest in a pointed, deliberate gesture.
The crow did not like the tie. And it sealed it for me. The tie had to go.
It was my second day in a row without a tie. And I had already realized that almost everyone in the office, including my boss, was far less concerned about the status of my tie than I would have given them credit for.
It was liberating. Like a breath of fresh air in a stale room that had been locked for years. I wanted to enjoy it.
There was only one small problem. In order to enjoy, I needed to breathe. That essential, natural, taken for granted physiological function that is fundamental for human survival. The function that was neither natural nor effortless for me anymore.
I was suffocating. Again.