Winter Of Despair

Mina trudged up the slope to her usual haunt on the hill. The old rusty bench under the jacaranda tree had become her own. The green expanse of trees around, gave her the perfect solitude she loved. No one ever came this way. Except for the twittering of birds in the trees, there was a kind of tranquillity here, where one could quietly explore one’s thoughts or dream one’s dreams. But then, Mina’s dreams had died a long time ago, and she would never dare to dream again.

“Why am I so restless today?” she wondered, “I’ve been happy working for Connie, this last year. I thought I was at peace with myself at last, and had come to terms with my solitary state.”

Connie’s job was a Godsend. Just when Mina had begun to despair, she had spotted an advertisement in the ‘Forerunner.’ A famous writer living alone in a small town, was in search of a secretary. Mina had no great hopes.

“With no references, I doubt if she’ll bother to call me for an interview. Besides, this lady is something of a recluse.”

Connie was struck by this particular application. It made no tall claims to efficiency and perfection. Neither did it spill over with promises of sincerity and faithfulness.

“Graduate, with secretarial training from a reputed institution. No mention of experience though she graduated five years ago. No references. No relatives or encumbrances. And none of the usual promises of faithfulness.”

It appealed to the maverick in Connie, and Mina arrived.

She was in her mid-twenties, tall and willowy, smart but sedately dressed. Her manners were impeccable, her diction clear. But in the depths of her dark eyes, Connie detected desolation.

“Many years ago, I too must have looked like her, when I lost the love of my life.

Emptiness …….like a vacuum!”

Mina winced when Connie asked about her job experience and testimonials.

“Just try me out for a month Madam, and if you’re satisfied with my work, let me stay,” she pleaded.

“Very well then, I’ll try you out for a month.”

“Thank you Ma’am. There’s just one more thing. I’m a stranger in this town and have no accommodation.”

“Just as well. You’ll have no distractions. I don’t keep office hours. I’m a writer, and as you must know, creative spurts can be pretty erratic. There’s a suite of rooms in the rear of this bungalow. You’ll be comfortable there, and have your privacy. I seldom have company. But be warned, I have a rather disorganized lifestyle.”

“Bohemian,” Mina volunteered.

“But I don’t drink or smoke, and I’m not footloose and fancy-free. Just plain lazy – long gaps of inactivity, when I lie in bed and listen to music or read! My last book was written two years ago. Since then I’ve been dilly-dallying.”

Connie didn’t tell her that she had Multiple Sclerosis, and desperately needed someone to type out her stories. Mina couldn’t believe her good luck. Perhaps it heralded the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

“How can I thank you Ma’am! You’re so kind.”

“Now, now … Go easy on your thanks. You might not like the job after all. And just call me Connie.”

They soon settled down to a comfortable relationship. Mina brought order into Connie’s disorganized life, and the writer fell into a routine of working during the day, and sleeping well at night. After a few weeks, she even felt well enough to socialize with friends, and would spend an evening at the Club.

“Would you like to come along?” she asked one day. “I could introduce you to people your age.”

“No.” Connie was taken aback at Mina’s agitation. “I’m here to do a job, and I’m happy. That’s all I need.”

“But you’ve been here for almost a year, and the only people you talk to are the household staff. Don’t you have a family?”

Mina’s face turned ashen.

“Hey, I was just being kind. I wouldn’t want to drag you out with me, against your wishes.”

She was now convinced that the girl was hiding from someone or something.

“Is she a convict on the run? Could she have murdered someone or embezzled money from a previous employer?”

Connie was quite sure she had work experience elsewhere.

“No inexperienced person could have put order in my office the way she has done. She handles my correspondence and my calls very professionally.”

On the way to the Club, Connie’s thoughts were in a muddle.

“Should I send her away? Oh no, I’ve grown too dependent on her. She’s attentive to my every need. Always willing and eager to work. And she’s safe here. No one’s going to bother her.”

Some months later, when Connie announced that she would be having guests, Mina was worried. She had fled to her hideout under the jacaranda tree.

“I can’t hide forever. It’s time to face the world. Connie would never let any harm come to me.”

She thought of the years of humiliation, the abandonment of friends, the lack of a decent job, the fading away of her youth.

“It broke my mother’s heart to see me waste away. That’s what killed her in the end.”

Tears streamed down her cheeks. She was soon sobbing uncontrollably.

“I hope no one comes this way. I wouldn’t want anyone to see me in such a state.”

It was getting dark and she had to move. She brushed away her tears, and walked back home.

The guests had already arrived. Connie said it was going to be a family reunion, and wanted Mina her efficient secretary, to meet them all. Two sisters and their husbands were duly introduced. They were as friendly as Connie, and genuinely interested in getting to know her. Mina relaxed.

“Why was I on pins?” she wondered, “ I guess I’ve become too suspicious of people – as though they’re all out to get me. But the world is not populated entirely by bad people. I need to snap out of my self pity if I don’t want to turn into a bitter old maid.”

She listened to their conversation, their easy banter, the sharing of camaraderie! She had almost forgotten the joy of mixing with people.

She took pains over her appearance next morning. A navy-blue skirt, and a simple white shirt with a touch of lace at the collar, her long mane lifted off her neck with a clasp, and she was ready for work.

“Connie’s on holiday, but I have loads of work to do. So if you’ll excuse me….”

She disappeared into the office, pulling the door behind her.

Nobody disturbed her until lunch time. Then the door opened and someone peeped in.

“Hi there! You must be Mina the efficient secretary. I’m Connie’s youngest brother Zal. Couldn’t make it last night, as I was working late.”

He was inside the office now, and as she turned to look at him, he almost drew back, then composed himself.

“Where have the others gone?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps for a drive, but they’ll be back for lunch”

Zal admired her poise, as she led him into the living room.

“Can I offer you something? It has to be a soft drink, or water or tea. Connie doesn’t keep anything stronger.”

The tinkle of her laughter filled the room like the soft chime of a chapel bell.

He was probably her age – a dashing young fellow with a winsome smile!

“Can’t believe that Connie’s actually getting out of her room before noon . The last time

I visited, she was in bed, buried under a stack of books. How is she keeping these days?”

“Have I missed something? Connie is as chirpy as a lark. We work during the day, and her book is almost nearing completion. She even goes out to meet her friends, though she seldom invites anyone over.”

Should she be discussing her employer with this man?

“Connie is a great girl. This will be her eighth novel. For as long as I can remember, she has been writing or travelling around, except for a couple of years after her bereavement. She and her husband had come back from a trip to Africa . He must have picked up a bug there, and within a month after they returned, he was dead. Connie was in deep depression for many months. Then one fine day, she upped and left the city. Bombay was too much for her, she said. She wanted to be alone, to pick up the pieces of her life. That’s how she landed in this outlandish place. Looks like a safe haven for anyone who wants to run and hide,” Zal said.

Obviously his comment escaped Mina. They could hear the car come up the drive, and Zal was soon preoccupied with his family.

That night, Mina had time to recall her meeting with Zal. He had caught her unawares. She couldn’t run and hide. Good manners made it incumbent on her to play hostess, in the absence of Connie.

“But it wasn’t unpleasant at all,” she thought, “ In fact for the first time in years, I didn’t feel fear. Does it mean that I’m on the mend at last?”

And while she slept peacefully that night, Zal paced the floor in his room, recalling all that he knew about Mina Ray.

Zal had followed the case with interest. A young girl on her first job in a multinational company, had fallen prey to the advances of her lecherous boss. Tall, handsome, stinking rich and influential, CEO Deepak Vohra considered himself God’s gift to all women. He operated with impunity, confident that no one would dare to complain.

Young and confident, but inexperienced in the ways of the world, she had been thrilled at the idea of earning a tidy pay packet. She ran home to give her mother the good news.

“I’ve got the job Mother. I’m going to enjoy working at VORMAC. There’ll be no need for you to continue working. I’m going to take care of you in future.”

All went well until one day, a clerk fell ill, and Mina was given extra work to do. She was winding up, when the boss walked out of his cabin.

“What are you doing here so late?”

“Just finishing Sir. I’m on my way out.”

“Which way are you headed?”

“I have to take the train to Mulund. I can catch the 6.45 p.m. Express if I hurry.

“Come, I’ll drop you off at the station. I’m going that way.”

It was a gleaming white Mercedes, and when the chauffeur opened the door for her, she felt like a lady, with the boss her knight in shining armour. By the time they reached the station, Mina was convinced that there could be no kinder man on earth.

Her elevation to Private Secretary came rather swiftly. It generated animosity among her colleagues. It meant close contact with the boss, and frequent forays into his cabin. Deepak Vohra was kind but crafty. He ferreted out the fact that she lived alone with her mother, a widow, and had no influential connections. Mina was now the sole breadwinner. She was easy prey.

It began with compliments on her work and appearance. Many unsolicited perks were granted. Compliments became more explicit. Each time she entered his cabin, she felt as if he was visually undressing her. It made her very uncomfortable. She had no one to confide in except her mother.

“Watch out,” the old lady cautioned, “Don’t let him lay his hands on you, and avoid being alone with him.”

“But I’m his private secretary, Mum. I have to be in and out of his office all day.”

The day he grabbed her wrist and pulled her to his side, Mina felt a deep fear.

“No, he wouldn’t dare do anything. If I scream,” she thought, “My colleagues will come to my rescue.”

Deepak was extremely professional for the next few weeks. Mina began to think she had imagined it all.

“A man of his standing wouldn’t demean himself by cheap flirtations. I have probably imagined things. Or is it my subconscious wishing it were true?”

And then one day, when she was least expecting it, he outraged her modesty, daring her to complain.

“I’ll do it again and again, until you beg for more,” he laughed. “Isn’t that what you’ve been wanting all along? I could make you very rich you know, if you’ll just let me cuddle you on and off.”

Mina wanted to keep the job desperately, but she wouldn’t work under Deepak Vohra. She had read in the papers about the Sexual Harassment Prohibition Act and the recent amendments. She appealed to the Management for protection, without realizing that the Vohras had a 52% stake in the company.

“All you women are highly imaginative,” said the President, “When the boss doesn’t respond to your overtures, you become spiteful, and start tarring his image. Deepak Vohra can have the crème of society. Why would he condescend to look at you?”

Mina mentioned her problem to a friend – a social activist, who promised to get her legal advice.

“I can’t work in such an environment. I value my dignity more than the job. However, I want to expose the man, and claim for compensation.”

But Mina had reckoned without the interference of her friend. The next day, a flag-waving, sloganeering group of women activists gate-crashed into Deepak’s office, accusing him of being a sexual fiend who harassed defenseless employees. There were demonstrations on the road, outside the office buildings, calling for his dismissal from the job, and punishment as per the Law. The media picked up the story, splashing Deepak and Mina’s photographs on the front page of every newspaper. The initial write-ups were in her favour, but overnight retaliation began. Not even the best lawyer could save Mina from the humiliation she was dragged through. The papers screamed, “Gold digger involved in sexual blackmail of VORMAC CEO.”

“Innocent man victim of vindictive employee.”

“Young woman suspected of Erotomania besmirches reputation of Deepak Vohra.”

Zal was doing his post-graduation in Psychiatry, when his boss discussed the case of a young lady he was asked to examine, under a court order.

“De Clerambault’s syndrome – a rare disorder peculiar to young women! The supposed lover is of a high social status, and definitely beyond her reach. She convinces herself her victim is head over heels in love with her, and has made various sexual advances. Her delusion is unshakable. She becomes abusive and makes public complaints.”

“Do you think she suffers from this syndrome Sir?” Zal had asked.

“Nonsense. She is as sane as the next person. It’s a clear case of sexual harassment. The man concerned is influential and rich. He’ll clear his name and destroy the girl. She’ll go truly mad or kill herself.”

“So you’ll testify to the truth Sir?”

“I’m the prosecution witness but my testimony will be hostile to them.”

Zal was shocked when the Professor swore in court that Mina Roy suffered from Acute Erotomania, and needed urgent psychiatric treatment. But he couldn’t live with his treachery, and the next day, he was discovered dead in his bed, from an overdose of phenobarbitone.

Connie told Zal in confidence, that she suspected Mina had a dark past.

“No friends, no communication with any one, and no ambition in life! I’m quite surprised that she’s so friendly with all of you.”

Zal realised that Mina had still not got over her humiliation by Deepak Vohra’s propaganda machinery. He reassured Connie that he didn’t find anything suspicious about the girl.

“Perhaps that’s the way she is. Some people mind their own business. You’ve got a real good secretary, and she’s made a great difference to your life. I hope you appreciate that.”

But when he was alone, he brooded over Mina’s story.

“Victims of sexual harassment never win. Legal provisions are seldom implemented. Instead, a woman is projected as a liar, a blackmailer or a sex maniac. And the Professor who could have bailed her out lied against her.”

Zal felt he could help in her emotional rehabilitation. He knew he had this singular gift – By speaking to people, he brought out from the depths of their minds, their insecurities and pain. Then he helped them grapple with their demons, head on. It was not too late for Mina. He must win her confidence.

But retribution for Deepak Vohra was at hand. One bright summer’s day three months later, Zal was back.

“Hey,” Connie shrieked with delight, “This is a pleasant surprise!”

Zal gave her a perfunctory hug.

“Where is she?” he asked, urgency in his voice.

“Mina? So you’ve unearthed something? Tell me, “ Connie said excitedly.

“Where is she?” he repeated impatiently.

“She usually walks to the hill top and sits under the jacaranda tree.”

He found her there, quietly staring into space.

“Mina….” She jumped up, ready to flee. Then she saw him.

“Zal – It’s you! We didn’t know you were coming.”

He held out a paper to her.

“Sins catch up with Head honcho of VORMAC. Victim takes revenge.”

The picture of Deepak Vohra cowering before a woman with a club in her hand, stared back at Mina.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! I’m vindicated at last!”

She burst into hysterical laughter for a good five minutes, then swooned. Zal stretched out his hand to support her, and drew her into the security of his arms. She would never know such desolation again.


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