Anjali Malhotra smiles at the older man. That is about the limit of her skill set as receptionist for her father’s one-man import-export business. She had agreed to do it during the summer break, but hadn’t quite counted on having to manage crises like this. It is her third day at Malhotra Holdings, and there is a client to meet Papa. Problem is, Papa is out.
The client is stocky, tall for an Indian, and dapper in a Nehru collar.
‘I’ll just check with Mr. Malhotra how long he’ll be, sir, why don’t you take a seat in the boardroom?’
She leads the way down the corridor, her pencil skirt and heels making her take annoyingly tiny steps.
She seats him at the head of the long table and fetches a tray of milk sweets. She has no idea how to make coffee, so she doesn’t offer him any.
Rushing back to reception, she speed-dials Papa as she sticks her earbuds in.
‘Papa! Where are you? Your client is here.’
‘What? He’s supposed to be coming tomorrow! I am halfway to Melbourne Airport to pick up your great-grand-uncle from Delhi!’
‘What do you want me to do with this guy, then? I’ve put him in the boardroom with a tray of milk sweets, but that won’t hold him for long.’
‘Only Surya Sweets, beti nah? Not the Milky brand ones, terrible stuff, they don’t use real ghee.’
‘Geez, Dad, of course I gave him Surya Sweets, do you think I’m a complete buddhu?’
‘Anyway, stall him somehow, okay?’
That was almost an hour ago and there is still no sign of her father. Ugh. It was a glorious Melbourne day, with a hint of eucalyptus in the air. She could be on the beach with her friends, but instead she’s in her dad’s office with some big shot she’s supposed to keep entertained. She doesn’t know what the client’s name is. He had just assumed that she knew who he was in that expansive Indian way.
‘I am here to see Anil Malhotra,’ he had said, trailing in a cloud of Drakkar Noir.
Mr. Drakkar had been occupied with his phone and the milk sweets until now, but it likely wouldn’t hold him forever.
Anjali texts her father:
Papa, where are you???????
Traffic is terrible! At least 20 mins to the airport, then maybe another hour or so, I don’t know!
But I can’t stall this guy for so long!
Anjali’s phone rings, and she slips her earbuds in. ‘What?’ she hisses.
‘Anjali, beti, light of my heart – ‘
‘Papa –’ she says like a warning.
‘You know this business is yours. I’m only warming that chair for you, beti. Like a Patek Philippe watch I am just guarding it for the next generation.’
‘Papa – ‘ her voice has risen an octave.
‘It is all cued up, my PowerPoint, there is even speaker’s notes, you just have to play it, hardly any talking at all! Completely self-explanatory!’
‘How am I going to access your laptop, Papa?’
‘Beti, don’t pretend you don’t know my password. It is your birthdate!’
‘I have no idea what to say to Mr. Drakkar! He’ll see through me in one second! This guy is dripping money!’
‘Mr. Gupta is a very modest man, beti, he just needs the bullet points!’
‘Oh my God, Papa! I can’t believe you’re doing this to me! How much is this deal worth anyway?’
‘You don’t need to worry about all that, just run the PowerPoint. I can stay on the line – you have those Q-tips in, don’t you?’
‘Earbuds, papa, earbuds. You’d better stay on the phone and guide me through this! And there had better be something really fantastic for me as a reward.’ Anjali clicks her way back to the boardroom, whispering at her father the whole way.
‘I will get you all the chocolate you want, beti.’
‘Chocolate? I meant more like a car!’
‘Now, be reasonable, beti, think of the environment – ‘
Anjali ignores her father, takes a breath and straightens her blouse before walking in, a smile plastered on her face.
Mr. Drakkar starts awake as she enters. He has polished off the entire tray of milk sweets. She feels sick even thinking about it.
‘Fantastic snacks, my dear. Just like back home!’
She smiles nervously.
‘Can I get you more?’
‘Ah no, no! Well, I mean only if it is there and needs to be eaten!’
Anjali pulls out another tray from the fridge by the door and hands it to him.
‘So, it appears Pa – er Mr. Malhotra is unavoidably delayed. He apologises profusely. I do however have the sales pitch here, if you would be so kind as to accept me as…’
‘Absolutely! Absolutely! I have heard so much about you, it will be wonderful to see you in action! You go right ahead!’
Heard so much about me? Anjali thinks. Who is this man confusing her with?
‘Er, sure,’ she says, connecting her father’s laptop to the projector. She has the PowerPoint cued up and the title page flashes on the screen:
“MASSIVE MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR SALES PITCH FOR MILK SWEETS AND SPICES AND WHATNOT”
Mr. Drakkar is too busy selecting his next milk sweet to notice.
She immediately clicks to the next page, swallowing the dry lump forming in her throat. The slide is a picture of the milky way. On the laptop, Anjali looks at the speaker’s notes. “Picture of milky way,” it says helpfully.
‘Papa,’ she says in an undervoice, ‘what is the milky way for?’
In her ear – ‘Anjali, beti, how can you be so obtuse? Milky way is for milk sweets of course!’
‘Yes, I agree! Wonderfully milky!’ Mr. Drakkar says, beaming at her.
Anjali coughs and looks at him. ‘Er, so Mr. Dra…er, sir! What we have here is a pictorial representation of the galactic heights that our deal could take us to!’
In her ear – ‘Fantastic beti! You are wonderful at winging it!’
She clicks hopefully on to the next slide which is a picture of cows.
‘As we know, dairy is an important industry in India, and of course here in Australia, which is why the link between the two countries is so important,’ Anjali says, feeling like she has forgotten to do her homework.
‘Yes indeed! So important! As revered as the holy cow Kamadhenu itself!’ says Mr. Drakkar.
‘Um, yes, so –’ Anjali clicks on to the next slide which is of a man jogging, and the speaker’s notes say “health”. Anjali feels the sweat prickling in her underarms.
‘It is all about health, and er…wealth…’
‘Beti, it is all this modern-day dieting fads, important to come back to basics, Indian food is best, including milk sweets in moderation.’
‘But how is that going to help me sell…’ she mumbles.
‘What, dear?’ says Mr. Drakkar.
‘Sorry. Um… the idea is that in our modern lives, we have er…strayed…that’s it…strayed much too far from traditional roots!’
‘Absolutely! Couldn’t have said it better myself!’ says Mr. Drakkar.
‘Syabash, beti. Good save.’
‘So,’ Anjali valiantly continues, ‘the cornerstone of this campaign is about traditional values, coming back to basics, for Indians and non-Indians alike. Simple food items, with some treats now and again, as everyone should enjoy.’
Mr. Drakkar nods as though she has said a deep truth.
In her ear, a loud honking and – ‘Don’t you know how to indicate, you bullock-cart driving buddhu!’
‘Quiet!’ she mutters.
‘Oh, I didn’t say anything dear,’ Mr. Drakkar replies.
‘Ahem, yes, sorry sir.’
In her ear – more honking, and, ‘Give way yaar!’ then, ‘I am on my way back, beti, there is no way around this traffic, I will message uncle.’
Mr. Drakkar’s phone pings and he silences it. ‘Sorry dear, you go ahead, don’t mean to interrupt.’
She clicks onto the next photo which is of Mahatma Gandhi. The speaker’s notes simply say “non-violence”. Anjali exhales through her clenched teeth.
‘Which will lead to less stress, and less anger, and just less violence all around!’ Anjali beams.
Mr. Drakkar shakes his head slowly in awe. ‘Wonderful, my dear!’
She clicks forward to the next slide which is of dolphins breaching. The speaker’s notes say “fish out of water”. Anjali takes a big breath and pushes on.
‘And, of course, the ultimate outcome of going back to basics is to feel more at home in your own body, no matter where you are.’
Mr. Drakkar is out of his chair, clapping loudly. ‘Wah! Wah! Amazing pitch my dear!’
‘Thank you, sir. Um…so…can I…more milk sweets?’ Anjali desperately waves the tray at him.
At that moment papa walks in. ‘Uncle-Ji?’ he says confusedly.
‘Ah! Anil! Your assistant here has been giving me the best sales pitch I have ever heard!’
‘My assistant? But Uncle-Ji! This is Anjali! My daughter!’
‘Anjali? Little Anjali? But she looks nothing like the photos!’
‘Well, yes, that’s because the last photo I sent you was a few years ago!’
Anjali is becoming redder by the minute. ‘Will someone tell me what’s going on!’ she explodes.
‘But beti, this is my grand-uncle Mohan-Ji! Surely you have seen photos!’
She had, but of him fifty years younger, at least.
‘Uncle-Ji, how did you come to be here? Your plane hasn’t landed yet!’ Papa continues, flummoxed.
‘Beta, my plane landed hours ago! When you didn’t come to get me, I knew you had mixed up time zones like you always do.’
‘Yes, you said you’d be landing at nine a.m., which is two-thirty p.m. our time!’
‘Papa! They always give you the E.T.A. in local time! Didn’t you know that?’
‘Now why would they do that? Makes no sense. If you leave in Indian time, surely you must also land in Indian time!’
‘Papa –’ Anjali says, a dangerous quiver in her voice. ‘Do you mean I’ve been giving this ridiculous presentation to the wrong person the whole time?’
‘Ah no! Not the wrong person, to me! To your great-grand-uncle Mohan who has pots of money and nothing to do with it! So, you have a deal my child!’
‘Um…sorry…what?’ says Anjali.
‘Ji?’ says Papa at the same time.
‘Yes Anil, you know you are like a son to me and I have no children, so of course I will help you. And with this beauty guiding the ship, there can be no doubt it will be a success!’
‘But – ’ begins Anjali.
‘That’s wonderful, Uncle-Ji! Thank you!’ says Papa, cutting her off. ‘See, beti,’ he says turning to his daughter, ‘I knew it would be a cinch for you!’
Anjali opens her mouth but, before she can say anything, Uncle Mohan cuts in. ‘Now, listen, I am not a buddhu, I have seen the financials. This is a good deal. There is a significant gap in the Indian groceries market in Melbourne.’
‘Oh, you actually read those emails, Ji?’
‘Of course I did, Anil. Why do you think I have travelled all the way to Melbourne? I needed to see it for myself. Now come,’ Uncle Mohan says, beckoning Anil and Anjali to sit, ‘Let us have some milk sweets, but only the Surya Sweets stuff nah, not the Milky brand ones, terrible stuff, they don’t use real ghee.
Sumitra writes in Naarm/Melbourne. She has won the Writer’s Playground Short Story and WOW! Flash Competitions. Words in Jaggery Lit Mag, National Flash Fiction Day, Every Day Fiction, Cheap Pop and upcoming in Janus Literary, Emerge Lit Journal and The Hooghly Review. She works in mental health. Her twitterings: @pleomorphic2