Short Story 2019: Under Pressure

For adman Aziz, his team is incompetent, and his job, a high-pressure one. He meets Prakash on a flight to Delhi, and what follows is an exchange that opens his eyes to the world outside, in this story by Sanjana M Vijayshankar

Under Pressure

The vein in Aziz’s head was throbbing in a way that hinted at a gruesome end to the universe as he knew it. And considering he was at the centre of the universe as he knew it, things did not bode well for him at all at the moment.

“I am the boss,” he hissed into the wireless neckband that hung around his neck like some sort of lifeless snake. “Which means you do what I say, no questions asked. I own your work. I am the boss!”

It wasn’t altogether unusual to hear these words from Aziz. The man had developed the habit of hissing, yelling, emailing, and sometimes, when he was feeling a particularly strong dose of megalomania coursing through his veins, spitting the words ‘I am the boss!’ about two times a week, ever since the corner office had become his eight months ago.

As a result of his somewhat unexpected promotion, the number of power suits in his wardrobe had increased and the number of employees who could tolerate him had dropped, exponentially. Where he’d gained expensive ascots and cuff links, he’d lost talented artists and copywriters. It was an exodus the likes of which the agency had never witnessed before.

But it didn’t matter to Aziz. He was the boss and that was all that mattered, really. Underlings would come and go.

Lost in thought, with earphones still jammed into his ears, Aziz tapped away on his laptop. The presentation he was tinkering with was, according to his own manager, “perfectly fine.” Meaning there was no need to tweak, mend, or alter it in any way, for any reason. But Aziz firmly believed that it lacked his Midas touch. It was almost as if he had a pathological urge to take something that worked and change it just so that it was his.

He was so engrossed in systematically taking apart two weeks’ worth of work that he nearly missed the announcement that rang across Bengaluru International Airport.

“This is the final boarding call for passenger Aziz Davar booked on Flight 657 to New Delhi. Please proceed to Gate 3 immediately. I repeat, this is the final boarding call for passenger Aziz Davar. Thank you.”

Aziz cursed under his breath and slapped the laptop shut. He yanked the neckband off, stuffed it unceremoniously into his attaché, and scurried to the boarding gates with all the grace of a platypus on black ice. He produced his boarding pass and was let through by the flight staff at Gate 3. Minutes later, Aziz found himself inside a slightly cramped aircraft, trying to stuff his attaché into the already full overhead bin. To his ire, he was forced to concede defeat and ended up placing the attaché under the seat in front of him.

Laptop in hand, Aziz sank into his seat, fastened his seatbelt, and immediately got to work on his presentation again. From the 11th slide, he returned to the very first one. It was entitled ‘BRAND-AID: HELPING BRANDS CLAIM THEIR SPACE’.

Aziz rolled his eyes.

“Could be better,” he muttered as he deleted it and penned his own headline.

‘SHOOTING BRANDS INTO SPACE.’

After a moment’s consideration, he added a subhead: ‘Adding sparkle to the branding skies.’

Satisfied with his own brilliance, he leaned into his seat and allowed himself a grin. The vein in his temple finally relaxed and sank, temporarily out of sight, into the depths of his ample forehead.

Aziz worked in advertising. He had started his career two decades ago, fresh out of college with an MBA in Marketing from Manchester Metropolitan University, a fact that he broadcasted even when the opportunity didn’t quite present itself. (“When I was in the University at Manchester,” was his opening line in any conversation. He had once, much to everyone’s consternation, worked it into a discussion about beekeeping.) He had started off as a Client Servicing Associate at a small agency in Kolkata and worked his way up the slippery rungs of the industry to the position of (reasonable) power he held now – Principal Consultant at MacGee Yellow Berry, an agency with branches all over the country.

Aziz headed operations for the Bengaluru branch. Although he was primarily responsible for business development and revenue generation, his hooked nose frequently meandered into the creative department, a place where it was neither invited nor belonged. And as if this nose breathing down people’s necks was not enough, it was often accompanied by a pair of lips that barked ideas and orders bordering on the nonsensical.

Needless to say, creative resources fled the Bengaluru Yellow Berry office faster than bullets left guns. In fact, a former copywriter at the agency had gone so far as to give him a product-based moniker, complete with tagline and everything: ‘Aziz, The Fun Vacuum – it’ll suck the fun out of anything!’

But Aziz delighted in the departure of this so-called talent. Waste of space, he often referred to them in his late-night internal monologues fuelled by one too many glasses of gin. As far as he was concerned, he was the agency’s best copywriter and operations man and art director. Had he any passion for a filter, he might have been the best coffee boy, too.

“Anything to drink, sir?” said a female voice above his head. “Coffee, tea, juice?”

“No, thanks,” Aziz said without looking at the stewardess.

“I think she might have been asking me,” said the man to Aziz’s right.

For the first time since the aircraft had taken off, Aziz looked up at his fellow passenger.

He was tall even while seated. His face was clean-shaven and chiselled — that jaw could’ve cut glass. His hair was peppered with grey, but it made him look distinguished. He wore a plain, unbranded shirt that was tucked neatly into pressed trousers. Aziz could tell the man was fit. His shoulders were square and there was no belly spilling over the seatbelt. Aziz made a half-hearted mental note to renew his gym membership.

The man smiled at the stewardess, ordered himself a coffee, and turned back to Aziz.

“She was asking me,” he said pleasantly. “Although, you’re free to tell her no now.”

Aziz flashed a sheepish grin. “I didn’t notice. Nothing for me, thanks,” he said to the stewardess, who gave him a smile solely because it paid her rent.

“I was slightly preoccupied,” Aziz said apologetically to the man.

“I can see that,” replied the man, nodding at the laptop. “I was going to ask you if you were travelling on business or pleasure, but it’s an unnecessary question. All those graphs and charts and graphics… clearly, it’s pleasure.”

Aziz laughed. “Well, that actually depends on how things go this afternoon. I’m Aziz, by the way.”

“Prakash.”

The two men shook hands.

“You’re not from Bengaluru,” said Prakash. It wasn’t a question.

“Am I that obvious?” laughed Aziz.

Prakash shrugged his shoulders. “Not too. It’s just that you cursed in fluent Delhi when your bag didn’t fit in the overhead bin.”

Aziz didn’t look remotely abashed. “Guilty as charged.”

“So, what are these graphs and charts for anyway?” asked Prakash as he sipped his coffee.

“I have a presentation this afternoon,” Aziz said. “Talking to brand owners and marketing executives and such, about how they can reach their full potential, blah blah blah, you know.”

“I’m afraid I don’t,” Prakash said, shaking his head. “What exactly is it that you do?”

“I’m an ad man,” replied Aziz. “Um, an advertising agency, I work at an ad agency called Yellow Berry.”

“Oh, that’s interesting.”

“It can be, sometimes.”

“And when it’s not?”

“It has a tendency to crack you open and tear you apart.”

“Ouch.”

“Oh, you have no idea. It’s hell!”

A hint of amusement flitted across Prakash’s face. “Tell me more.”

“Well, there are clients,” said Aziz, making the last word sound like something that dropped out of a cow’s rear end. “They’re quite horrible, and that’s putting it lightly.”

“Difficult people?”

“They make you wish you were dead.”

“Go on,” chuckled Prakash.

“Nothing is ever right with these people,” Aziz said. “Something is always wrong with the ad. If it’s not the logo placement, it’s the headline. If it’s not the headline, it’s the background image. If it’s not the background image, it’s the ‘feel’ of the bloody font.”

“I imagine this must be very hard on your staff as well.”

“It would be, if my staff were actual humans with functioning brains.”

“Come on, they can’t be all bad!”

“I have to do their work, you know?” Aziz said, shaking his head.

“You have to?” laughed Prakash, putting down his empty cup.

Aziz groaned. He loved to groan. It was one of his favourite things to do.

“Seriously, I do. I have to rewrite headlines, literally sit down with artists and make sketches, control daily operations… it’s absolute garbage. If I had a rupee for every time I had to write the copywriter’s scripts for her…”

Prakash nodded thoughtfully. “I’m guessing you handle the creative folks, then. A Creative Manager?”

“Actually, I’m the head of the Bengaluru branch,” replied Aziz, trying not to sound too pleased with himself. This took a lot out of the man; modesty was not one of his strong suits. “We have a Creative Director, but he’s more of a figurehead. I run the scene.”

“Ah. Is that anything at all like managing a business?” Prakash asked.

“Very much so.”

“So, why do you have to manage creative work as well?” Prakash asked, a tiny frown creasing his forehead. “Sounds like too much work for one person. Not to mention it’s, um, well, redundant.”

“I’m forced to!” said Aziz passionately. “They’re incompetent, all of them.”

“All of them?”

“All of them.”

Under Pressure
Under Pressure

Prakash ‘hmmm-d’ and fell silent for a few minutes as the stewardess materialised again and handed him his pre-ordered sandwich. A few bites later, he turned to Aziz once more.

“It’s a one-man show, then?” he asked.

“That’s exactly it, Prakash,” said Aziz, slapping the food tray with much enthusiasm. “I like the work, don’t get me wrong. But it would be nice, for once, if people could keep up with me, you know?”

“Right, right,” said Prakash, nibbling his sandwich. “Sounds like a lot of pressure.”

“Oh, I am constantly under pressure. This job is mighty stressful. Not a lot of people get that.”

“Pity,” sighed Prakash.

Aziz’s keyboard went tippity-tap for a few minutes and then stopped.

“It’s like… a ticking time bomb, you know?” he said, putting his laptop away finally. “Everything is hunky-dory and then, all of a sudden, the art guy loses his inspiration, the writer forgets the goddamn alphabet, I have to do major damage control, and the client keeps calling until I crack. Then the timer has no more seconds to give me, and before you know it… BOOM!”

“Boom,” repeated Prakash, nodding. “I understand. It sounds a little crazy, not at all like what I imagined advertising to be.”

“It’s incredibly stressful, believe me,” said Aziz, sighing in an exaggerated way.

Silence fell between the two men as the flight continued to glide in and out of wispy white clouds. In the quiet, Aziz shut his eyes and mentally rehearsed the conversation he was planning to have with the Branch Head at New Delhi. Funnily enough, he managed to seize the last word in every version of this imagined conversation.

A little more than an hour later, the flight gradually lost a few feet and then a few hundred more and landed smoothly in New Delhi. On cue, the entire flight got to its feet and scrambled to reach for their luggage.

“Say, where are you headed?” asked Prakash, bringing his backpack out of the luggage compartment. “Whereabouts in Delhi?”

“I have to stop at my agency’s office in Jhandewalan before heading to Sheraton,” answered Aziz.

“Do you want to share a cab?” Prakash offered. “I’m headed towards Jhandewalan, anyway.”

“Superb! Let me just…” Aziz retrieved his attaché from under the seat. “Let’s go.”

The sweltering New Delhi sun bore down on the pair of men as they waited for their cab. Aziz was sorely tempted to mop his forehead with his tie, but he’d paid a fortune for the silk. What was more, he did not want to admit, even to himself, that wearing a suit in summer had been beyond stupid.

It came as a huge relief for the stocky ad man when their sedan pulled up and the cool air-conditioned interiors blanketed him.

As the car weaved through the traffic, Aziz and Prakash chatted. Aziz talked and Prakash nodded as the former continued to regale the latter with the pitfalls of advertising and how he was soon going to crack under the strain and quit but he couldn’t because he loved his job after all, and wouldn’t it be a damn shame if he gave up now, after all those fights he’d won against the Creative team? He went on in this vein until Prakash gestured for the driver to stop outside a respectable-looking hotel along the way.

“Well, this is where I have to get off.” Prakash turned to Aziz with a pleasant expression. “It was wonderful to meet you, Aziz. Good luck with your presentation. I sure am thankful I’m not in advertising. It sounds…”

“Nerve-wracking, yeah,” laughed Aziz. “By the way,” he added as Prakash stepped out of the cab. “I’m so sorry, I never asked. What do you do?”

The tall, clean-shaven, fit-as-a-fiddle man gave Aziz a tiny smile and said, “I used to be a bomb disposal technician.”

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