Fiction

Zero

By Ranjit Kulkarni

Why did God give the human species the intelligence to invent the mobile phone? Sitting alone in a plush restaurant in despair, young Rakesh Oswal threw his phone away. Even in the AC of the restaurant, his forehead had a few drops of sweat. Lots of questions filled his tormented head. In a moment, he glanced at his phone ringing again and neglected the call again.

“It’s Atharva again,” he muttered to himself while signalling to the waiter to get a glass of fresh lime with soda. “Salted, with lots of ice,” he added.

“How could this happen?” Rakesh strained his head. “I have never made such mistakes before,” he thought to himself.

He started thinking hard, back in time. It was last Friday when his friend and client, Atharva Dhamdhere, had called him. Atharva had placed an order to short sell 2 lots of Excellence Industries. Rakesh had asked his staff clerk Srini to place the order on Atharva’s account. There were small trading losses by end of the day. But Rakesh had carried forward the position over the weekend. The small losses on Friday would be more than made up by the large gains on Monday. So he thought.

But the stock went up, and went up in a big way, on Monday. Rakesh finally covered Atharva’s position on Monday afternoon after the losses piled up. He stared at the screen in horror, shocked to discover that it was not 2 lots but 20 lots that were short sold. Excellence Industries was up 24% since Friday. His friend and client, Atharva Dhamdhere, was staring at, nay he had suffered, a huge loss.

“How the hell did this happen?” Rakesh muttered to himself, sipping the water. “What face will I show to Atharva now? You are in deep trouble Mr Rakesh Oswal,” he said under his breath.

“And why the hell is this fresh lime soda taking so long?” He shrieked at the waiter standing beside his table. He banged his fist with clenched teeth on the table. He wiped the sweat that had trickled down from his forehead on to his brow.

There was no surprise then that Atharva Dhamdhere was calling him incessantly. Since yesterday evening, he pushed Rakesh to return the money lost on a bet gone awfully wrong. And that too, ten times at that. The phone rang again. It was Atharva Dhamdhere again. This time his broker and friend Rakesh Oswal didn’t have a choice but to answer the call.

“What the hell have you been smoking Rakesh? I told you to short 2 lots and you shorted 20 lots? Do you know what that means now? And the stock gas gone up 24%!! Do you have any freaking idea how much the bloody hell I am screwed?” the agitated voice of Atharva Dhamdhere on the other side asked.

“Yes, it’s a major oversight, Atharva,” Rakesh shifted awkwardly in his seat.

“Oversight? You call this oversight? 20 lots instead of 2? On a stock that goes up 24%? This is a monumental blunder, Rakesh,” Atharva yelled. “So what if I have given you a power of attorney to operate my trading account? It doesn’t mean you can do anything you wish with my money,” he yelled.

“No Atharva, I didn’t do it..,”

“What do you mean you didn’t do it? My order and trade book shows it loud and clear. It’s there in black and white..”

“I mean Atharva, I didn’t do it on purpose. It was an oversight.”

“An oversight? What the hell? Instead of 1 lakh, you have debited 10 lakhs from my account now. How can you penalise me for losses that happened due to your mistake? Bloody hell, you better pay up for this Rakesh….”

“Atharva, but I have to pay the exchange after the trade squares off. The rules and regulations say that. Atharva, I had no choice. They would have locked my terminal.”

“Well you can put all that square off rules nonsense up your round… whatever …,” Atharva held himself back in words, but not in emotions. “Look Rakesh. I am telling you once and for all. Do whatever you want. You pay from your money. I want my money back. Don’t use my money for your trades…”

“Well, Atharva.. it’s not like that.. it’s a genuine mistake.. I need to talk to my staff..”

“What do you mean, Well Atharva? And you talk to your staff or whoever else you want. You used my money for your trades.”

“Oh… No! Atharva.. We can recover the losses in the future..”

“What Oh No Atharva? You did. And don’t talk of recovery in future trades. I am not falling for any of your false promises.”

“I meant No, Atharva. Not Oh, and then No Atharva. We will find a way out of this.”

“Keep all this Oh and No nonsense with you Rakesh. Look Rakesh, I am telling you one last time. Give me my money back and that’s final. Else I will register a police case. I will not rest till I drag you to court. I will not care about our relationship.” And Atharva Dhamdhere slammed the phone down.

Rakesh Oswal felt the tremors of that fiery wrath pierce his ears and the heat of the anger burn his face. His brief but successful trading business and its reputation were at stake. Atharva had trusted him. He was one of his batch toppers in their course on finance. Rakesh felt he had betrayed Atharva. Atharva had been a success at everything he had pursued. He had never failed so bad at something as he had today. And Rakesh had a hand in it. No wonder he was fuming. This was new, uncharted territory for Atharva Dhamdhere.

For my business, I may have to pay up Atharva the ten lakhs. But that’s too much, Rakesh thought. Should I tell Atharva to share the losses once he cools down? Rakesh reasoned. Five lakhs each sounded okay. But Atharva will not agree, another side of Rakesh contemplated. I will tell him that I will not charge him anything till I make up the remaining five lakhs in future trades. Rakesh consoled himself. Atharva may agree to this, he is doing well in his career. He can afford to give me some time, and the five lakhs, Rakesh reflected. He didn’t know what to do, as all types of cogitations enveloped his being.

“Sir, your fresh lime soda and ice,” the waiter said. He broke the train of introspection of Rakesh Oswal. “Anything else, Sir?” He added in a cheerful tone.

Why is this guy so happy when I am in dire gloom, Rakesh pondered. He clenched his teeth and gave him a stern glare.

“Any problem, Sir?” asked the waiter.

“That’s none of your business,” was Rakesh’s curt reply.

“No problem Sir,” the waiter said and tottered away with a jaunty step. Rakesh Oswal was not an arrogant man. But a sudden, unexpected dose of misfortune can shake even the politest of people. Rakesh realised his error and called the waiter back.

“Get me another one of these,” he ordered. And then he added, “And don’t you mind my volatile mood today. I am going through a bad patch.”

The waiter broke into another smile.

“No worries Sir, I can understand Sir. I am sorry for being cheerful Sir. I am in a good mood,” he told Rakesh.

When one is in a bad state of mind, the good state of mind of another person can pull your mind away from your own gloom. The same happened with Rakesh Oswal, though only for a few brief minutes before it turned sour again.

“Oh well, then cheer me up,” he said. “What’s the reason for your cheer?”

“Well Sir, I made an unexpected gain yesterday,” the waiter explained.

“Hmmm, a sudden pay-out from the restaurant owner?” Rakesh asked.

“No Sir, an unexpected windfall from the stock market. Do you keep track of it, Sir?” The waiter asked, in all innocence.

Rakesh Oswal shifted in his seat and the temporary cheer on his face disappeared. The dark gloom made its presence felt again.

“Yes I do. I own a stock trading firm,” he said.

“Oh great Sir. Then you would know Sir. I bought a few shares of Excellence Industries on Friday and it went up 24% on Monday. I gained 24000 rupees in one day, Sir,” the waiter grinned. He conveyed the reason for his happiness with the widest smile that Rakesh Oswal had seen so far.

Rakesh gazed into blank space. He didn’t know whether what he felt currently was a wave of anger, a tinge of envy or a tsunami of sheer desperation. If left alone, a wise and optimistic man like Rakesh Oswal finds a way to get out of his gloom. What makes it tough even for such a balanced man to get out of that melancholy is another man’s merriment. What makes it improbable is if the reason for the other man’s gaiety is the same as the reason for his doom and gloom.

Rakesh Oswal, expert trader that he was, had always known that trading is a zero-sum game. But, in all earnestness, he felt that he didn’t need a reminder of that fact right now through this experience. And that too from someone who, in his mind, was a measly waiter. He stood up in a jerk from his seat. 

“Cancel the second fresh lime soda order. Take this and keep the change,” he slapped a five hundred rupee note on the table and started to walk away.

“Sir but it’s only 120 for one fresh lime soda,” The waiter shouted aloud.

“Why don’t you have the second one on my behalf? It’s on me. It is your lucky day. And keep the change, I said,” Oswal shouted back as he walked out.

He got into his car and drove away. Drops of sweat fell from his brow on to the seat now, inside the AC cabin of his car. He muttered under a heavy breath, “Where the heck has this dimwit clerk, Srini disappeared?”

The waiter pocketed the change and gulped the fresh lime soda. He peeped out to check that the car had left. Then he jumped what seemed like twelve inches off the ground in joy. He pumped both his fists and raised his arms above his head and shoulders in triumph. He twisted his waist and danced. Now he had no reason to hold back his joy.

The other waiters looked at him in awe. The owner signalled him to stay silent. But none of it deterred him. The smile on his face was the widest he had experienced since his childhood.

Everyone called him a zero because he amounted to nothing in school and college. His father always compared him to his more academic and accomplished college mates. “Be like Atharva Dhamdhere, study well, learn from his discipline,” he told him. Not that he didn’t try. “But couldn’t they understand that everyone has limitations? Not everyone loves studies,” he mused within.

Everyone said he was a general good-for-nothing. “Because I fail at everything, you can’t call me zero,” the waiter told himself.

But that was all in the past. This was not the time to think of it. This was the time to celebrate the present. The gain of 24000 he had made on his trade was the first time he had done anything worthwhile.

But that was not the real reason for his unbridled joy.

The real reason was the loss of ten lakhs that he had caused to the hero. When he saw the client’s name that day for the trade that his boss Rakesh Oswal asked him to enter, his eyes popped open. This guy, he remembered, was the hero to his zero. The hero Atharva Dhamdhere who always upstaged him ever since his childhood. The hero due to whom he got the name zero.

“Now he will know what a useless, dimwit clerk can do. Now he will know what a zero can do. Only one extra zero will bring your world down,” he had thought then. To his good luck, nobody had noticed it. Now he broke into a loud and hearty guffaw. It was time to celebrate.

He removed the false wig, moustache, and beard. He threw out the rented waiter uniform he had worn. He stepped out of the restaurant. The good-for-nothing clerk turned waiter breathed a fresh gulp of free air. Srini smiled in the satisfaction that, finally, a zero amounted to something.

###

Ranjit Kulkarni is a writer of short stories, articles, and novels. His work has appeared in Literary Yard, Indian Periodical, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Potato Soup Journal, Setu Journal, CC&D Scars, Ariel Chart, Active Muse, Anti-Heroin Chic and Kathmandu Tribune.

Categories: Fiction

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