Excerpt | The Exorcism of Sathish Kumar, MBA
Protagonist Arjun Palani must negotiate a minefield of corporate intrigue and lay-offs, in this debut novel by computer architect and blogger Ramiah Ariya
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The pink slip
I sat in a corner of the cafeteria by myself. There were a few couples sitting and romancing even though our world was falling apart. The Accounts people were all there in a tight group.
Two of my team members, Raj and Mari, came in. The taller one, Raj, came up to me and whispered, ‘I have the List.’
I stared at him.
The quest for the List had finally ended.
A couple of years ago, in a weak, drunken moment, one of my former bosses had told me about the List, and the Keepers of the List.
He said that every corporation has a spreadsheet that is known to very few. It is called the List and it has the names of all the company’s employees on it. But the List is not an employee database. It is a layoff list. Employees are split into three categories: the top ten per cent, middle seventy per cent, and bottom twenty per cent.
The bottom twenty per cent are gone if Warren Buffett sneezes and the stock market falls. They get no respect, and are maintained in the company rolls to fill up auditoriums.
The middle seventy are gone if something like the 9/11 attack happens. They get no respect either, but they are tolerated.
The theory is that you can run a company with just ten per cent of its employees. Somehow, the entire top management always finds themselves in the top ten per cent. It’s a mystery.
When my former boss told me about the List, I was troubled.
‘Am I in the top ten?’ I asked him. I was naïve then, much younger.
He laughed hysterically.
The List is like the American drone program. Everyone denies its existence. But people get smoked constantly based on it.
We had been looking for the List for the past two months, just to find out when we could expect HR’s kindly touch. And now Raj had found its location.
Mari joined us.
‘How did you do it?’ I asked Raj.
‘It was difficult,’ he said.
‘But how? This must be the first time in history that a non-Keeper has found the List...’
Raj coughed. ‘I am not just a non-Keeper.’
‘You mean . . .’
‘Yes, in the bottom twenty, baby...’ He did not seem bothered by it.
I was worried.
‘Where am I?’
He became serious.
‘I don’t know.’
‘My name is not on the List?’
‘It is, but it’s weird. You have to come and see it.’
On the way down I asked Raj again how he had found the List.
‘Well, I asked myself how they would keep the List current, you know? They’ve laid off so many people. If they don’t keep the List up-to-date, they will end up laying off the same person again and again.’
Mari thought that would keep HR busy.
‘Yes, so they must be linking this to the employee database in some way. I have access to that database and ended up snooping a little bit. There was this mysterious feed going somewhere, and it ended up being the List.’
We walked over to his computer.
‘Take a look.’
The List was colour coded. There was green, which I assumed meant top ten. There were a lot of names with yellow. A few with red.
‘Where is my name?’ I asked Raj.
He scrolled to the top of the list—it was the first one.
My name was on top of the List. The spreadsheet cell said ‘Arjun Palani’ in bold, and in purple. The next column had a date—13 November 2012.
I stared at it for some time.
‘There is a comment on the cell,’ Mari said.
Raj hovered the mouse over the cell. A tiny yellow box opened up. It said, ‘Marked for the EXM team; Do NOT remove’.
I was spooked. The company’s List had me marked for some reason. Could it be that I was actually considered…smart? So smart that they had me identified among a thousand for a special team?
The possibility that I was smart had occurred to me earlier in my career, but I had dismissed it repeatedly.
Particularly after being laid off three different times.
Perhaps they saw potential in me—a spark of greatness.
‘Perhaps the EXM team collects garbage,’ Mari said.
‘Whatever it is, you’ll know soon,’ Raj said. ‘That’s today’s date.’
‘I’m prepared for whatever my company offers me,’ I said with conviction. I had newfound respect for BSD’s managers.
Just then, our manager walked past, glaring at us. Early during the layoffs, he had seen us loitering around.
Immediately he had exercised his leadership ability and commanded us to work. We pointed out that there was no work. He had then cursed us for showing no initiative. He had nothing to threaten us with and watched us wander around with impunity.
‘Sir . . .’ Raj called him.
Our manager stopped, but kept looking away like a Seventies villain.
‘Sir, when is the EXM team starting work?’
He finally turned fully to us and said, ‘What team?’
‘The EXM team. Is it a new client, Sir?’
‘I’ve never heard of any such team,’ he said and walked away.
‘Is there a Teams list?’ I asked.
Raj went back to his computer to look.
‘Hey, aren’t you both in the bottom twenty? Aren’t you worried, you lazy bums?’ I asked.
‘The List is not read-only,’ Mari shrugged.
‘You mean you upgraded yourself?’
‘As we deserve, for finding the List in the first place.’
‘There is no EXM team listed,’ Raj said from his terminal.
We pondered this for some time.
‘Where did you look?’ asked Mari.
‘In the employee database.’
‘Do you have access to Accounts?’
‘Not to the really important stuff, but I have access to some spending records.’
Raj started typing again.
At that moment, the lift door opened and two security guards stepped out. The HR director, Dileepan, came out with them. They looked in our direction. The HR director said something to the guards, and all three started walking towards us.
We froze. Raj was still on the Accounts database. I wanted to warn him, but could not say anything. Was this the moment that we would all be arrested for cybercrime?
Was I getting laid off a freaking fourth time? Why the security guards?
Dileepan walked up the long corridor with the guards on either side; he looked like Al Pacino in some gangster movie. Heads craned from cubicles. The guards’ heels clicked rhythmically on the tiles.
Raj was still typing.
As they came closer, Dileepan inclined his head and the guards stopped. He smiled at me. I have no doubt he understood the effect his show was having on everyone.
‘I am Dileepan.’
‘Could you collect your bag and any belongings and come with me?’
I gave Mari a despairing look. Raj was peeking out from behind his computer.
I silently went to my desk and picked up my bag. It felt very heavy. The whole floor was now watching me: the guy who had messed up so much, his dismissal was being handled by the great HR director himself.
The guards turned around smartly and I started walking with them. Dileepan patted me on my back as I walked past him. Tears stung my eyes.
Excerpted from The Exorcism of Sathish Kumar, MBA, by Ramiah Ariya, with permission from Westland Ltd.