The constant hum of the machines that fills the still air soothes his soul.
“So, I’ll wait for my gift, Mr. Ahmed.” The inspector winks.
Faiz smiles and escorts him outside. He runs his fingers through his hair and looks inside his factory.
His brainchild. Not big, but it’s operations are very systematic. Boxes of Signora Perfumes are being printed in one section. In another, various perfumes are concocted which are poured into bottles and these are then packed in the printed boxes. They are further sent to the distributors and retailers all over the country.
It looks like any ordinary factory running full capacity to make ends meet. Only, this one is anything but ordinary.
Faiz is a master in duplicating perfumes and at present, the well-known Signora brand is his major source of income. He knows he is in a very risky business, but the money that he gets is unimaginable.
The products that he sells get him hundred percent returns. He doesn’t have to spend a penny on any kind of license or pay any tax except the rent. The name Signora does everything for him. Only the brand suffers. Their statistics show that they are selling so much, but it doesn’t reflect in their accounts.
Faiz knows it is a matter of time before the Signora management realize that something is off. Then he will have to switch over to some other brand and also shift his place of work. He has done this numerous times before, and is adept in switching overnight.
Yes, he has to stuff the pockets of the local police, goons and corporators alike; they give him tips when he’s in danger, but what he makes is nothing compared to the bribes he gives.
“Sir, we need a few more helpers to complete our orders.” The supervisor breaks his reverie.
Faiz nods. He then leaves for home.
While walking towards his car, he thinks about his workers. How he handpicks them from poor families and trains them. Nobody refuses him because he pays a handsome salary, in fact double of the market rates. This ensures their loyalty to him. And it makes him feel better; he is doing something good for them after all.
The sun is about to set and the sky is a hue of orange-red, as Faiz gets into his Audi Q5. He adjusts the rear-view mirror.
What the hell… His reflection is absent in it. He blinks hard, and looks again. But still he cannot see himself.
“Remember me?” A voice asks. Faiz looks around in his car, rolls down the window, but there’s no one. The voice asks the same thing again.
Faiz glances at the rear-view mirror and that is when he notices something. Or rather someone. He peers closely and his forehead furrows, when he finds a mini-version of him staring back; as small as a little finger. He shakes his head, pinches himself and looks again. But, that person is still there.
“What the…..? Who are you?” Faiz manages to say.
“You know me. I’m your inner voice. But you have forgotten about me since long. Or can I say, that you have suppressed me with all your strength.”
Faiz is speechless. He closes his eyes thinking it’s a hallucination, but the mini-he persists. “I can’t bear this anymore. Helping your workers to pacify me isn’t working.”
Faiz grunts, “Huh! My inner voice? I thought I killed you… And I’m doing well without you.”
The mini-he gives a sad smile, “You haven’t killed me yet, my dear. Anyway, I’ve come to warn you. Take the right turn before it’s too late…” And then he disappears.
Faiz can see his reflection back in the mirror. Sighing, he starts the car.
A few kilometers ahead, there is a diversion due to an accident. The motorists are turning either left or right. The left one is a faster route. But Faiz turns right. It’s been ages since I’ve travelled on this road.
He passes by his old neighborhood, the place where he was raised, and brakes involuntarily. He gets down and walks. He can see his old school and the dilapidated state in which it stands. It brings back many memories.
“He misbehaves so much that we have all given up on him. He only loves chemistry. What about the other subjects? He is in class 10. He has to work hard…” The class teacher complains in exasperation to his Abba*.
Abba looks at Faiz and slaps him. “Useless piece of shit!” he yells. Faiz sniggers. His abba continues “You moron, you will ruin my reputation. I work so hard for you. And you don’t study…”
Faiz tightens his fists, “What reputation? You are a bloody peon in a bloody municipality school…” Then he storms off.
Faiz feels a storm building inside him and he lights a cigarette, blowing out puffs of smoke. The smoke metamorphoses into a thick black one and he takes a step back, horrified. He closes his eyes and after opening them, he is relieved to see that there is no such thing. But it reminds him of something that he has buried deep within himself.
Faiz sneaks into the chemistry lab that evening, to make a concoction that he wants to experiment with. He is busy mixing the chemicals, when he hears some voices. In a hurry, he doesn’t realize the quantity that he is mixing. He abandons everything and runs away.
About an hour later, there’s a huge blast and a fire starts in the school. Faiz is horrified at the sight. Thick black smoke emanates from the roof. Luckily, no one is injured, but the only municipality school in the locality is gutted. Later he comes to know that the fire first started in the chemistry lab and then spread.
Faiz knows that he is responsible for this, yet he cannot do anything to make it better. He buries this fact and tries to forget about it.
But, the sight of the school makes him shudder and so he stops going.
His Abba is furious. The other kids resume their studies in makeshift classrooms, but Faiz doesn’t budge.
“Earn something if you don’t want to study.” His Abba finds him a job of a helper in a printing press.
The job helps him find his way. He develops an instant interest and learns in enthusiasm. From loading and unloading containers to understanding how the machines work to learning basics of computer and accounting; he does it all. And his manipulating and flattering ways with his colleagues to get the job done impresses his employers so much that he ascends in the hierarchy from a helper to a manager in 5 years.
He feels proud of himself. And he makes sure to rub it off on his educated juniors. He smirks at them saying, look at me, a class 10 dropout is a manager and you?
Faiz comes back to the present when his phone rings. It’s the factory supervisor. “Sir, I forgot to tell you about some college students who had come today. They wanted to understand the working of a factory and they’ll be coming tomorrow too. I thought you should know.” Faiz is counting the pebbles beneath his shoe, and mutters an ‘okay’ before the line goes dead.
“Are you leaking our rates to other printers in the market?” His boss bellows.
“Why would I do that?” is Faiz’s weak reply.
He is shocked to find incriminating documents on his computer for which he has no defense. Only gaining the boss’s trust is not enough.
The firing that he receives is smeared into his memory. The looks of pity from his co-workers and the loss of his job, a job that he gave 10 years of his life; irks him.
He vows to never work for anyone else and be his own boss.
With the innumerable contacts that he has developed in the printing industry, and with the help of a small loan, he starts his own business. He manages to get a few clients and scrape through.
But the money is not enough. While hunting for clients, he comes across an agent who offers him to print boxes for a brand called Gold Perfumes. His dormant interest in chemistry sparks again and he learns how to make perfumes. Then he packs them in boxes of the ‘Gold’ brand to be delivered to the markets.
He begins to understand the nuances of an illegal business and the consequences of being caught. He adapts well and fast. His fortune skyrockets with each passing year. He buys a car and a new house.
He invests in more properties and laps himself in all the luxuries. He feels bad that his Abba did not live long enough to see him succeed. A failure of a son is now a millionaire.
Faiz looks at the school and feels something gnawing at him from within. This time, he does not suppress it and gives in. He slumps down the side of the road and bangs his fist on the uneven road. A tear drops from his eye.
This refreshed memory makes him wonder about his goal in life. Yes, he has been helping his workers’ families, but what about the school that had been his family once? He knows he has to make a decision. He can hear that voice within urging him to wake up.
Shaking his head, he stands up and makes a promise to himself; to do his best to restore the school to its previous glory.
With that thought in mind, he drives home.
Over the next few days, he sends books and stationary to the school. He talks to the principal about the repair works as well.
“It is of no use.” The principal says. “We have been trying since years, but they do some shoddy repairs that crumbles in the rainy season. Now, the municipality is inviting bids to sell the land and shift the school 8 kilometers from here. It will be so difficult for the kids to reach there.”
This new information disturbs him. But, he also feels relieved that he is here. As if his karma has directed him to this place; a place where he is meant to be. Restoring the school has become a mission for him.
He has saved enough to undertake repair works, but the land? His mind is churning out ideas.
“The bid closes 2 days from now.” The principal says.
“I’ll try my best,” Faiz assures.
The next morning, he reaches the factory with a sense of foreboding. A parcel awaits him.
When he opens it, his heartbeat increases. Oh no… Inside the box are pictures of his workers in the factory making the Signora perfumes. Each section has been photographed in detail. He can also see himself in some pictures. Who could have done this? His workers are his trusted ones, he hasn’t recruited the new ones yet.
Then he remembers… The college students… They are seen in the photographs too. Were they even college students? I should have checked their identities.
A letter is also attached.
Mr. Faiz Ahmed,
We are impressed by the efficiency and brilliance with which you are running your factory. In fact, we are surprised with the quality of the end product. It is even better than our copyrighted and original one. We have a proposal for you.
Come, work for us.
Should you disagree, we can guarantee you that you and your workers will be spending a major part of your life in jail. Remember, these photographs will remain safe with us, always.
You have 24 hours to decide and let us know. We are waiting in anticipation for your response. We don’t look forward to sue you.
Management of Signora.
Faiz crumples the letter and lets out a cry. He doesn’t know how to react. All his hard work is ruined…
He gathers his staff and tells them about his plight.
“So, what now? We don’t want to go to jail. Why should we? It is all your fault. Why did you do all this duplicate work?” All these questions are thrown towards him from all directions.
“You all are a part of this. You knew what you were getting into. But you stayed. Why? Because of the money. So now, you have to bear with me…”
The workers are flummoxed. The supervisor then says, “Sir please, we have our families to look after. Please think about it again.”
Faiz reaches home in a trance, unable to decide.
He has to still make the bid for the school land. Or should he forget about the school? And he had taken a vow to never work for anyone else. Can he go back on that? What about this luxurious life? Only 24 hours to decide…
He spends the night, restless with all these thoughts running in a loop inside his head.
He sees only one solution in sight.
He stands up and goes out to the open terrace of his 21st floor apartment. He looks at the rising sun and then he looks down.
He takes a deep breath and goes back inside.
He splashes water and when he looks up in the mirror, he sees his mini-version and staggers for a second.
“I’m proud of you.” The mini-he says. “You did listen to me.”
Faiz sighs, “Thank you for making me take that right turn all those days ago.”
“I knew you are not a bad person, only a bit lost in this materialistic world. I’m happy that you have found the right track. Remember, your time is running out. Do what you have to. Goodbye.”
Faiz stares back at himself and smiles, “Time to make a decision…”
That morning, when he reaches the factory, the staff is waiting in anticipation.
Faiz gives a bitter smile and grunts. They will suffer too.
Faiz clears his throat. “Alright everyone, I don’t want you to go to jail. But my mistakes will affect you. You will get new jobs, but not the salary that I pay. Start packing up.”
That same day, he completes the procedure for the bid.
His life has turned upside down in 24 hours. A boss has become an employee once again.
A few days later, he learns that he has won the bid. Who will refuse 1.5 times the amount offered?
Over the next few weeks, while adjusting in his new place of work, he manages to sell his flat, car and all the other properties. He pays the funds for the school land and begins the repairs. He moves in a smaller place in his old neighborhood.
He feels lighter, there’s a spring in his step and a glow on his face.
He has a new mission now, to destroy Signora Perfumes; conscience be damned!
Photo By: Pixabay
(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)