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Mukul was daydreaming. It was something he did often, and it can be accounted as one of his strengths in life. His ability to do nothing at all for extended periods of time was impressive. Of course, his mother was less thrilled with this particular competency of her son’s. Right now, he was supposed to be getting ready for his part-time job at the local pizza shop, but he preferred to lounge on the couch, thinking about all he could be.
For Mukul was incredibly ambitious. He wanted to travel. He wanted a nice car. He wanted a gorgeous girlfriend he could show off as a result of all of his hard work. He wanted people to whisper when he walked by, “That’s Mukul Kumar. He’s the one who revolutionized the computer industry in India.” Or, “That’s Mukul Kumar, the famous actor. The camera loves him! He will go places, that fellow.” Places that were important, where rich people went. Or, “That’s Mukul Kumar. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because he solved the problem of Kashmir. Presidents and Prime Ministers have him on speed dial whenever they have a problem that is too big for normal men to solve.” It did not much matter to Mukul which form his celebrity took, as long as he made it big. And, of course, as long as his perks for such fame included a wide variety of women from whom he could choose to find the perfect wife, and mother of his children.
His mother, Geeta, shouted from the kitchen, “Mukul! Are you ready for work? Remember, you have to look very professional! That way, you can get somewhere in life. You’re not going to accomplish anything looking like a homeless person!”
Mukul smiled. His mother meant the best for him, and he knew that she scolded him with nothing but his best interests in mind, but he did wish that she would understand that he was going to make an enormous impression on the world, and it was not going to be because of the clothes he wore. The fancy garments would come after his worldwide success, not be the reason for it. He couldn’t wait to buy his mother a new house, a house on the water. She had always dreamed of that. And he would make sure that in this mansion his father would have contained a special room of his own where he could keep all of his tools without having to ever clean them up. Mukul’s father loved to work on old cars but he had never been able to afford one of his own, at least one of any significant quality. Mukul resolved that that would all change once he became famous across the globe. His father would have his old cars, his mother would have her new house, and he himself would have a new life.
Mukul had been worried about his dad lately. Parveen had been tired and pale over the past month or so. Mukul feared that his father had been working too hard. And even when Parveen was most exhausted, he still had time to give his son much-needed advice, the subject of which was usually how Mukul could succeed in furthering his ambitions in a way that promised him the most happiness. He was always asking his father about jobs. Mukul had had the idea of driving a taxi. He thought it was a good idea, since they lived so close to the airport, maybe he could act as a shuttle to and from the airport. Or maybe owning one, and building a business from there. But his father had warned him that he would not meet the right people this way. And maybe he would make a little money, but long term, he would not grow from it. Mukul had been interested in the prospect because he had taken a cab home from work one night after he had suffered from a particularly trying evening. The driver had been friendly, and Mukul had gotten into the habit of taking the cab when he felt like he deserved a treat. In doing so, he had gotten to know the driver, Sulaiman, better. Suddenly, one night, Sulaiman had told Mukul excitedly that he had a great business opportunity that might interest his new passenger. Mukul had immediately become intrigued, and asked for further details. Sulaiman had promised great profits for both of them if Mukul only had the courage to act immediately and invest some money in his future. Mukul had hesitated, but decided to take the chance, and had given Sulaiman what small savings he had. However, he soon learned that his new partner’s promises had meant absolutely nothing. Mukul was so ashamed of how naive he had been in this encounter, that he resolved never to tell his father how gullible he had been. He didn’t want to add to his father’s troubles, anyway. Mukul suddenly remembered his dad’s wan, pale face. Suddenly, a feeling of foreboding swept over him.
It was perhaps a good thing that Mukul did not have the power to see what was currently going on in the Kumar living room. Parveen had mounted a stepladder in order to get the book he could not reach on his own. Just as he was reaching for it, he was temporarily startled by a swiftly occurring pain in his chest. Nothing to worry about, he thought ruefully. But he did plan on getting in better shape.
If Mukul had known about this incident, he would not have dismissed it as easily as his father had. He couldn’t bear the thought of either of his parents suffering. The other day it had rained heavily and Mukul had been walking home from the bus after an exhausting evening at the pizza shop, where he was currently working. Mukul’s mother had come out to meet him with an umbrella. It had not been raining earlier, and so he had not thought take one with him to work. But his mother had kept a watchful eye on the weather and had anticipated her only son’s need for protection from the monsoon which had sprung up so quickly. It was these frequent actions of concern that his mother engaged in that made Mukul feel like he could accomplish anything he set his mind to. After all, he reasoned, if someone as incredible as his mother loved him so much, and believed in him so intensely, surely he would be really big someday, as he put it to himself.
It should not be supposed that he was going to neglect himself when riches became his. No, he was definitely going to buy himself a Lamborghini at the earliest opportunity. That should impress the girls, he thought optimistically. He hoped that he wouldn’t break too many hearts, but he looked forward to the day when women would fight over him and demand his special attention. The local girls did not appreciate him the way they should. He loved women and wished that he had had sisters. That would probably have made it easier to meet girls, but he also wished that he had had at least one brother. Preferably an older brother, who could have helped him realize his dreams. Someone who had been already where he was, and could show him what he needed to do to accomplish his objectives. Mukul’s father meant well, and in his own way was just as supportive as his mother, but Mukul often wished that he had a brother who was around his own age so that he could understand what Mukul was up against. Sometimes, in spite of their great intentions, the older generation did not understand the changes that were taking place in India.
Mukul loved his country as much as anyone, but also saw that certain changes needed to be made. He didn’t know if he was going to help his country through acting, or the computer industry, or some other way, but he knew that he was going to have a great future. He just needed to have the opportunity to show what he could do. He had a lot of talent, and he was not going to shortchange himself by settling for a life that he knew would not satisfy him. He looked seriously forward to the day when he could tell his boss at the pizza shop that he was not going to be returning. He would give his two weeks’ notice because that was the type of person he was, even if others didn’t sometimes deserve his integrity. But he did not consider himself treated well at his current employment. His boss was always yelling at him to hurry up, or slow down, or come in on time. Mukul resented this bitterly. Yes, he sometimes arrived late at his job, but what about all of the times that he stayed late, at no extra pay, to make sure everything was satisfactorily done before he left for the night?, he thought to himself. His boss never gave him credit for that. It was always just more complaints that he showed up ten or fifteen minutes late. And it didn’t even happen everyday. Just sometimes. And Mukul hated it when the older son of the boss kept giving him instructions. Like he needed help from someone who was more than four years younger! He couldn’t wait to graduate from high school, go to university, major in computer science, maybe do a double major in computer science and theatre, just to hedge his bets, and move on to the next step. Then he would not have to put up with people like his boss who didn’t appreciate what he had in an employee like Mukul, who was nice to customers, worked hard when he was there, and did a great job cooking.
The thought of cooking made him think of his mother again. She was the best cook whose food he had ever eaten, but he was pretty good himself. A nice house on the water wasn’t really good enough reward for all that she’d done for her family over the years, but it was definitely a good start.
“Mukul!”, she shouted again from the kitchen. “You don’t sound like you’re getting ready. You sound like you’re watching television!”
He could honestly say he wasn’t paying attention to the television, which was showing a rerun of Big Boss, one of his favourite shows. He was daydreaming instead. But he didn’t think his mother would appreciate the subtle difference, so he went to the kitchen and said, “But Mum, I was thinking about how, when I’m rich, I’m going to buy you a house on the water!”
“All right,” she said graciously. “Five more minutes!”
He took ten. Then he had to get to work, and try not to be late. He was partially successful. He was able to be only six minutes late.
His boss was not forgiving. “Some day, I’m going to fire you, Kumar! I won’t be disrespected like this. Every day you come late!”
“Not every day!” Mukul didn’t want to tick off his boss, but his sense of justice also compelled him to stand up for himself so that he did not lose too much dignity. He couldn’t get fired, because that would bring shame upon his family, and plus, his mother would kill him. But he did have to say something. “Don’t worry, boss, I will stay late to make up for it!”
“Always, always, you try my patience! You are not a good person to make me wonder if you’re ever going to show up or not. My doctor says I shouldn’t have too much stress on my heart, and you are going to put me in an early grave!”
“I will do better,” Mukul promised. “But I’m a good worker once I’m here, right?”
“You are acceptable,” his boss said unwillingly. “I would not say good. That is an exaggeration. But remember, you cost me money when you come in late because what if someone comes in and wants a pizza and you’re not here? You know I can’t cook! That’s why I hire you and pay you a sum fit for a king!”
Mukul couldn’t resist saying, “You mean the king of poverty? I wish I was rich like you.”
“Rich? Me? I wish!” His boss laughed loudly. “I am the poorest man in India!”
“No, no,” Mukul protested. “I know you are one of the wealthiest. You probably own half the land in our town. I’m honoured to be working for you because of my association with such a rich, successful businessman! Maybe your good fortune will rub off on poor Mukul!”
His boss told him to get to work without further procrastinating. The fun was over!
Well, that wasn’t strictly true. Because after his boss had gone into the back room to pore over financial statements in an attempt to cut costs, and make even more money, Mukul was left alone in the front part of the store. Just then, the most beautiful girl that Mukul had ever seen walked into Pizza Magic. She did not look to the left or right when she entered the restaurant; she knew what she wanted, and she headed straight for it. Mukul was already impressed by her, more than he had ever been by another girl. He wondered if it was too soon to propose.
“Can I help you?’. Mukul asked shyly, hoping that she was attracted for some reason to boys who were late for work, worked in a pizza shop, and had big dreams.
“Yes, I’d like a large pizza with the works.”
“Anything for you!”, Mukul said with a big smile, hoping that she understood that he quite literally meant anything.
She appeared unimpressed with the pizza boy’s willingness to do anything for her, and repeated her request for a large pizza with the works since he did not seem to be in danger of getting that done too quickly.
Mukul cleared his throat, trying to sound as professional as possible. “So you want the works?”, he asked, trying to think of a way to impress her with his knowledge of all things pizza, but failing to come up with anything suitable on the spur of the moment.
“Yes, that’s what I’d like,” she said, looking around the shop, as though she was hoping that someone was going to rescue her from this under achiever.
If only she hadn’t ordered one with the works, Mukul inwardly groaned. He could have offered an extra topping for free. But with the works, he didn’t have a lot of room to negotiate. Unfortunately, as he discovered, it is hard to think about impressing a girl, and actually in practice impressing her, at the same exact time.
“Is there anything wrong?”, she asked with a certain amount of impatience.
“No, no,” he said hastily. “Nothing at all is wrong. Everything is absolutely perfect!”
She rolled her eyes.
“Would you like it whole wheat?”, he asked desperately, trying to fulfill her deepest desires before she even anticipated them.
“Are you saying I’m fat?”
“Noooo, you look perfect. There is just this health craze on right now . . . ” He stopped talking. It seemed like a good idea based on her facial expression.
After getting the exact details of her complicated order straight, he was able to provide her with an excellent pizza in record time.
She even congratulated him for it, while she was paying for it.
“It looks great!”, she said. “Goodbye!”
“What’s your name?”, he asked, encouraged by her appreciation of what he had made for her.
“Oh, that’s beautiful, just like you!”, he blurted out.
Oh, shoot. She didn’t seem to appreciate that.
“I hope you come back again!” As largely unsuccessful as their encounter had been, he somehow never wanted it to end. Her huge eyes, her hair parted straight in the middle, and the fact that she had a perfect body were all that mattered to him.
She smiled. “I guess you’re not a total jerk,” she allowed.
That was almost as good as his boss giving him the business, he thought. “What music do you like?”, he asked suddenly.
“Anything,” she replied. “I like a lot of American singers. And the old stuff. I don’t like the modern stuff as much. It’s over produced, and not nearly as good.”
Mukul loved the over produced, modern music, and promptly said, “I hate that stuff too! It’s stupid!”
“I really like the Carpenters, and Madonna, stuff from the ’70s and ’80s.”
Mukul had never heard of either. “Yeah, they are fantastic!”
Karma asked, surprised, “Oh, you’ve heard of them? That’s great! No one sings like Karen Carpenter.”
“They sure don’t!”
“What do you like most about her?”, Karma asked, thawing substantially to the pizza boy.
“Hmmm, that’s hard to say,” Mukul stated, not lying, because it is extremely difficult to critically analyze a singer of whom you have never heard. But what was life without risks? Since she didn’t like over produced music, he gambled and said, “I think it’s the fact that her music and her voice are really simple.”
The gamble paid off. “Exactly!”, Karma beamed at him. “Her pitch is always perfect. She’s the best alto ever! Her voice sounds so sad, and yet rich at the same time.”
Mukul nodded, glad that his risk had been rewarded.
Karma leaned forward, and said, “What is your name?”
He hadn’t even realized before that, that she hadn’t yet asked that important question.
“I am Mukul Kumar,” he said, with a simple dignity.
“I like that, the ‘k’ sounds,” she said with approval.
Encouraged, he continued, “I know there are a lot of Kumars. But there’s only one Mukul!”
“I like that,” she said with a smile that made Mukul stupid with desire.
“Someday my name will mean something,” he said seriously.
“Good, I like that,” she repeated. “I like guys with ambition!”
“Oh, I have plenty of that! What else do you like?”
She suddenly checked her watch. “Oh, I have to go. I’m meeting some friends. But I’ll come back!”
He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t do too badly talking with girls as a rule, especially in the middle of conversations, but the beginnings and the endings were painful, always. He never knew what to say that would leave a good impression, and he desperately wanted to leave a good impression with this girl. He opted for simplicity. He didn’t want to over produce!
So he said simply, “I hope you do come back because you have the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen.”
She left the store without saying anything further. The beautiful girls do not have to be grateful for every small compliment they receive.
About twenty seconds after she had departed, Mukul heard a scream, and the sudden braking of a loud car. He rushed out to see what had happened, only to discover Karma lying on the sidewalk, her body stretched out in an unnatural way.
A man rushed out of his car, anxiously exclaiming, “Is she okay?”
Mukul scowled at him. “Why don’t you be more careful?”
The man protested, “It all happened so fast. She came out of nowhere. Wow, she’s really beautiful! Is she your girlfriend?” The look on the man’s face clearly said Mukul must have blackmailed this girl if they were indeed a couple.
Mukul waved the man away impatiently. Just then, Karma began stirring, her eyes opening slowly. Once she was finally awake, Mukul asked her what day it was. She said Saturday. He asked her who the Prime Minister was. She answered faintly, “Manmohan Singh.” Mukul asked her who the love of her life was. She rolled her eyes at him, so he knew with relief that she was indeed okay.
“Since I saved your life, do I get your phone number?”, he asked slyly.
Karma laughed and only said she would think about it.
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