by Lilian Duval
About the Author
Lilian Duval is a technical writer, a 9/11 survivor, and a former software developer. She lives with her husband George, native of Singapore, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and writes fiction in her spare time.
Synopsis: Outsourcing (Fiction)
Vijay, an outstanding young Indian economist, is hired by a New York company on Wall Street. Research assistant Aurelie fears his threat to her career. She is nevertheless drawn to him and amazed by his culture. Their interaction is an unpredictable mixture of business, pleasure, and tradition.
The new guy at work, Vijay, had come from India by way of London. Aurelie wasn’t pleased to be sharing her double office with someone who was on the phone all the time. Vijay must have dozens of friends. “What’s that language you’re speaking?” she asked between phone calls.
“Which one?” He swiveled his chair around to face her. He had an engaging smile and used it often. Their square office contained two desks, two chairs, some mismatched cabinets and bookshelves, and a seven-foot fiddle-leaf fig tree. Aurelie’s desk looked out on the New York Stock Exchange, and Vijay’s faced the rest of the company’s offices. They worked with their backs turned to each other.
“That was more than one language?” she said. They all sounded the same to her. Indian languages made her hungry because of their connotation with spicy food, and they also sounded sexy; it must have something to do with that Kama Sutra.
Vijay shook his head no, but evidently meant yes. “Hindi is one of our national languages, besides English.” His English was fluent and flawless. “I also speak Marathi with some people; that’s my mother tongue.” He swept his thick, black hair off his forehead and swiveled back to his work and his phone. Some sort of pleasant, perfumy aftershave swirled around the room. Aurelie could smell it from her desk.
An hour later, Vijay asked her about the Forecasting project. “I could benefit from your insight. You’re the expert.” His huge black eyes penetrated.
She was swallowed up by his look, at once exciting and disturbing. His eyes were smiling, while his other features were serious. “Not really,” she said, “I’m just on the sidelines. I’m a research assistant – you economists have the formulas and the insight.” Actually, Aurelie had been aiming for promotion to Junior Economist, though at age thirty-three it seemed undignified to be labelled junior anything.
“Nah, this is a team effort. According to Kurt, you’re the one with the mastery.” He pronounced “mastery” in the British way.
Aurelie’s mood switched. It wasn’t so much the praise; it was the way he delivered his pronouncements, as if her excellence were the irrefutable truth. She sat up straighter and gave him a half smile. Vijay got his notebook and began shooting precise technical questions. As he wrote, he said things like “Absolutely, terrific,” and “Of course, excellent, well done.” He filled several pages in half an hour.
“I guess you’ll be guiding this ship from now on,” she said, impressed. He’d issued no orders, yet seemed to have taken charge, though he was officially her equal in the corporate hierarchy. For now.
“I’m only an apprentice, here to learn.” He put down his notebook, stretched, and smiled. “What’s to eat around here?”
They went out into the mild December afternoon. The Manhattan streets were dry and windless, and the comfortable temperature didn’t match the seasonal decorations. Aurelie gave Vijay a walking tour of restaurants near Wall Street. They stopped at an Indian hole-in-the-wall where you had to be aggressive to grab a table during the lunch rush. “You’ve got to be carnivorous to get a seat here,” she told him.
“Ha – a place full of carnivorous vegetarians,” he said.
She laughed and handed him ten dollars. “Just get me what you’re having.” She lunged for a free table. Vijay emerged from the long line with a tray of rice, bread, and curry. He counted out her change, coins first, bills second, while several seatless customers hovered nearby, salivating for an opening. “Reminds you of home?” Aurelie asked over her curry.
“Close, not exactly.” Vijay was efficiently scooping his palak paneer with torn strips of naan, fashioning each piece into a spill-proof utensil, which he then devoured along with the curry. He seemed to be saving his rice for the malai kofta. Aurelie tried the bread-scooping method and had to keep licking spinach puree off her fingers, so she cheated with her fork. Vijay ate neatly without dripping any sauce.
At this rate of rapid eating, they would finish lunch in silence. “Do you like this country?” she asked.
“Some things I like, some I don’t.” He was mopping up spinach with his last fragment of naan. “American business is great. And you have good roads, with no cows on them.”
“Cows? You have cows on your roads?”
“Yes, we do,” he said, with more head-shaking. “They’re sacred. You’re driving on the highway, and suddenly you have to stop for a cow right in the middle. Or other animals – goats, buffaloes... Most of our highways have one lane only in each direction. If someone comes at you while you’re passing a car, you have to zoom around each other fast to avoid an accident.” He illustrated a near collision with his spoon and fork and made whoosh-whoosh car noises. “There are lots of close calls.”
“Nah, you learn to deal with it. One more thing about this country.” He was very methodical; he wasn’t going to forget what he’d planned to say. “Your government is less corrupt than ours.”
Funny compliment. “So what’s bad?” she said. For a skinny guy, he had an enormous appetite, and was already devouring his second curry.
“Well, let me say that I disagree with American interpretations of family, friendship, and morality,” he said, as if he’d prepared his answer beforehand. “I never heard the term ‘family reunion’ until I came here. In India, we don’t reunite; we just stay together. On friendship: in my culture, a friend is like a family member. We’re devoted to our friends.” He looked up from his nearly empty plate and said in a lower voice, “As for morality, I’m appalled by the American practice of casual sex.”
“Not everyone is the same here,” she said, slightly miffed, but feeling oddly compelled to win his approval. More customers were waiting for tables, pacing around with trays and leaping at the first vacancy. She and Vijay finished and got up to leave. “You’ll find that we have tremendous diversity here,” Aurelie said.
“Perhaps,” Vijay said. “Thanks for showing me around.”
Aurelie was going over Vijay’s speech for the conference uptown. “Your debut at headquar-ters,” she said. “Almost done – thirty pages.”
“Let’s see.” Vijay re-read his report rapidly, making several minor changes. The paper was titled “Funding World Hunger Without Adversely Affecting the Free Market,” and it included technical and mathematical analyses, with examples from classical economic models. Vijay had been given one week to complete his first assignment. That was yesterday. Aurelie had never seen such a complex thesis, fastidiously and entertainingly written, by such a young financial analyst. Maybe he was a genius. He had a B.E. from that famous I.I.T., and then his Master’s from the London School of Economics. Vijay pronounced the speech fit for the conference. He stuck it in his desk drawer and went on to his next task, while sitting on one foot and humming softly.
A week later, they were sitting around an oversized oval mahogany table in the boardroom on the sixtieth floor at the company’s uptown headquarters, admiring the panorama of Central Park. Vijay was about to be introduced, and he was shuffling through books and rumpled papers in his attaché case. “Aurelie, do you have a copy of my speech?” he whispered.
“No, did you forget it? Oh, my God –”
“Don’t worry.” He was calm. “I remember enough of it.” He strode to the front of the room and greeted the board members and chief officers. His black hair and charcoal suit stood out against the wall-to-wall white board. He was only around five-nine, but looked tall up there. Aurelie dreaded watching him explain his first major error – forgetting the document – but he sprang into the speech, starting with the introduction, and spoke as if he were reading from an active Teleprompter. From beginning to end, stopping to illustrate concepts by drawing charts with colored markers on the white board, he delivered the speech exactly as Aurelie remembered it from the week before. He spoke in well-modulated tones, catching the eye of one corporate bigshot after another, and occasionally sending a nearly imperceptible, conspiratorial look in Aurelie’s direction, as if this were an immensely delicious shared secret. Nervousness was not part of his repertoire, and he put his audience at ease. It took nearly an hour to cover all the subtopics, and everyone applauded spontaneously at the end.
Questions and answers followed. Mesmerized by his performance, his audience hadn’t noticed the extemporaneous delivery. Aurelie considered how best to announce that. “I have a question, Vijay.”
“Yes?” His lips curled in a slight smile.
“How did you manage to present all that technical material without any notes?” she asked. All the board members and corporate officers gasped in unison. The ones in front gaped at the empty lectern.
“I find it easier to communicate without papers to distract me. No big deal,” Vijay said. His eyes were shining.
Aurelie started looking forward to going to work in the morning; and on weekends, she even looked forward to Monday, which would have been unthinkable a month ago. New Year’s Eve was anticlimactic. She and her boyfriend Ben went out to dinner with a couple of his goofy friends, and that was it for their celebration.
“Happy New Year,” Vijay said on the first work day back.
“You too. What did you do?”
“Oh, it was great. Three friends flew in from India, and a few more came from out of state, plus all the ones who live near me. Best party we ever had,” he said. “And you?”
“We went to a party at a friend’s house. It was a lot of fun.” She felt foolish for lying about something trivial. What difference should it make what he thinks, she asked herself. “How can you have so many friends in this country after only a month?”
“They’re all from India, too. We keep in touch – college friends, work friends. We never say goodbye – we just say, ‘See you later.’”
Aurelie wondered if she would have enjoyed such an endless parade of friends. She was intent on her task when Vijay leaned over her desk, fiddling with his passport. “I thought I’d touch base with you.” He looked her right in the eye.
She inhaled his scent and giggled. He had an endearing way of imitating American speech mannerisms and corporate jargon. She turned sideways and looked up at him in a flirtatious manner without thinking.
“They’re sending three people to London for a four-day conference,” he said, twisting the multicolored plastic sculpture on her desk into a new shape, then balancing his passport on top of it.
“Who’s going?” She twirled the silk scarf on her neck.
“Oh, Kurt’s going, and so am I.” He stopped twiddling with the sculpture and grinned.
“And who else?” She hid her hot cheeks behind her hair.
“You. First Monday in February.” He snatched his passport off the sculpture and flipped it onto his desk.
She teased, “That’s a problem. There’s a fifty-fifty chance the airports will be snowed in with blizzards.”
“Get out of here,” he said, in his cultivated, British-inflected Indian accent.
She laughed at his hilarious experiment with American slang. “Hey, are you trying to be so cool or something? ‘Git outta here,’” she mimicked. “It really doesn’t snow that much in New York.”
He sat on the end of her desk and told her about monsoon season in India. “Once, when I was coming home from college with a friend, it had been raining for four days straight. We thought we could make it all the way home, but we had to get out of the car and push it. The mud was up to here,” he said, indicating his knees.
“Wow. Were you wearing boots?”
“Sneakers. The mud was so thick, every step we took we almost lost our shoes. We finally plowed the car to the edge of the road and waded to the village to look for something to eat.”
“How’d you ever get home?”
“We waited a few hours for the road to dry out, then we chugged our way out of there. You know what, though. It was so much fun. I carry happy memories about that,” he said, gazing out the window at a scene from his past.
Kurt walked in and Vijay slid off her desk. “Happy New Year,” Aurelie said, annoyed.
“Happy New Year yourself,” Kurt said, and massaged her shoulder a little. Aurelie shrank from his touch. Kurt’s stomach hung out over his belt more than it had before the holidays, and he had raked his colorless hair over his bald spot. Both men left the room and Aurelie pondered the trip to London. The prospect of spending four days away with Vijay was enticing.
She sneaked a look at his passport. There was his date of birth. She did a quick calculation. He was twenty-four years old. It was impossible. She checked again. His picture smiled up at her. He looked and acted so much older. He comported himself like a mature adult at the zenith of his career. Twenty-four, she told herself. Flirting was fun, and she was going to stop right now, and that was the end of that. She applied herself to her work.
Vijay was on the phone again when she grabbed her coat and purse. “Wait a minute, Aurelie.” He finished his conversation and hung up. “Where are you going for lunch?”
Well, a lunch companion was all right, she rationalized. “Oh, to the Chinese place to bring something back. I’ve got so much to do.”
“Good idea.” He jumped into his trench coat.
She trotted briskly alongside him, reluctant to ask him to slow down. Maybe he wasn’t accustomed to escorting women. “Have you noticed Kurt’s expanding vocabulary?” she asked. “He focuses on a few designer words, and sticks them into whatever he’s saying. Then he looks around to see if anyone’s impressed.”
“Yeah. He’s latched onto ‘egregious’,” he said. “And another one I’ve observed. Guess.”
“Ah, give me a hint,” she said, surprised he would indulge in gossip about their boss. They jaywalked across Broadway.
“It means ‘to make things worse.’”
“Exacerbate,” she said, out of breath.
“Yep. And one more big one.” They were racewalking down the block. “The last two syllables mean ‘idiot.’”
“Dummy… dodo… stupid… moron,” she said.
“Oxymoron!” they shouted together, and slapped hands. They stepped into the takeout place.
“My treat today,” Vijay said. “You pay next time.”
They settled down in the office with their oil-stained brown bags. “What do you like to read?” Aurelie asked.
“Let’s see – Salman Rushdie and a lot of other Indian authors,” he said. “Technical journals, the classics – especially Shakespeare, the plays. Good for when you need a quote. And physics, black holes, astronomy –”
“Astronomy, not astrology, huh?” she said.
“Astrology is very big in India, a serious subject. I can read your palm,” he said. “Come here and I’ll give you an expert reading, free of charge.”
She put down her white container of rice. He traced the longest line in her palm. “You have a bright future that you cannot see now.” He traced another line. “You’ll make a decision at a fork in the road.” He traced a third line all the way up her wrist and held her hand for a moment.
“Ooh, you’re tickling me.” She was relishing the touch of his hand and the smell of his cologne.
“You will have an adventure.” He let go.
“Vijay, I’m not sure about your astrological credentials.”
“Well, I was bluffing. But my Mom is proficient at palm reading and Tarot cards. Maybe her skill rubbed off on me.”
With his back turned, she sniffed her hand, which retained the ghost of his aftershave. She wondered how old his Mom was.
“Hey, I thought of a great Scrabble word you’ll never know in a million years,” she offered. “Eight letters, starts with ‘p,’ a disease of wasting away.”
“You lose. The word is ‘phthisis,’” he said. “And I thought you had an ace up your sleeve.”
“How on earth did you know that?”
“Simple,” he said, feigning an aristocratic pose, “I was born superior.”
He sat beside her at the conference table for their weekly status meeting. Kurt was expounding on some project to the nine members of his captive audience, while Vijay was sketching a recognizable caricature of Kurt. Aurelie was restraining the urge to break into raucous laughter. She felt Vijay’s foot against hers and moved. Under the table, his knee shifted and deliberately rested against her leg. From the sides of her eyes, his face revealed nothing. She hunched her shoulders and closed her eyes just for a minute to savor the sensation.
Things were accelerating slightly. One day, after an especially satisfying conversation, Vijay said, “You know, Aurelie, I’ve never before met a woman who could discuss so many subjects so intelligently.”
She felt deeply honored. Glancing at the door to be sure that no one was watching through the glass, she blurted, “If I were your age, I’d dye my hair and skin to match yours, and pursue you to the ends of the earth.” It was out of her mouth, and she couldn’t believe she had said it.
Well, you can’t step into a time machine,” he said, but he was grinning.
“I feel like I’m in one now,” she said, “because every day around here is ten minutes long.”
“Outsourcing” will be continued in the next issue of Monsoon.