Culture & Society

Short Story: Find The Nearest Exit

A story on the turbulent world of start ups, uncertainty and job losses

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It was 2 am on Sunday night when the promising world of the employees of the fintech startup, which we shall call M, was suddenly turned upside down. The 25 odd staff members of M were rudely woken up by a loud ping on their mobiles. The message was grim – “We deeply regret to inform you of the sudden demise of our beloved CEO Manoviraj Mansukhani. He was in the midst of an intense workout sesh in the gym when he suffered a cardiac arrest.”

Manoviraj Mansukhani aka Mastermind was only 29 years old and a bright star in the unicorn-scape. Borrowing ideas from his university project, he had not only founded a dynamic startup, assembled a crack team but also managed to attract funds from foreign investors, who in turn, had given wings to his nascent enterprise. For those who knew him, it came as no surprise that he was in the gym at 1 am pumping iron while the rest of the world was quietly tucked away in bed. “Sleep is for losers” was his favourite mantra and it was scribbled all over the walls in his office.

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The staff was reminded of this quote of his as they sat in white attire in front of his framed photograph at the prayer meeting. “He is now in a state of permanent sleep. May his soul be at peace,” the pundit announced in a solemn voice. Someone at the back let out a loud howl before descending into a fit of uncontrollable sobbing.

“I hate to be rude here but I can’t help thinking about what will happen to this company and our jobs”, Jatin the coder whispered to Savita the product manager. Savita bit her lip as she contemplated the bleak future. Overhearing this, Akanksha from marketing felt a strong urge to lash at Jatin but mindful of the occasion, covered her mouth with her scarf to prevent audible utterance of any curse words. Pratik from strategy stared up at the ceiling, wondering if the new AI-enabled scenario planning software he had recently read about would offer guidance in this situation.

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But before long, a staff circular put the uncertainty to bed. The key Russian investor in M had appointed their man Yuri Petrov as an interim CEO “to steer the ship through turbulent times” and “to ensure continued profitability and customer delight”. The staff tutted at the cliched note and immediately dove into an extensive internet search to uncover more information about the new CEO. They were disappointed when they realised that not only was there no image of this particular gentleman on the net, but there was also no major proclamation of his managerial expertise except for a brief mention in an unresolved white-collar crime in some Baltic country. They were further disappointed when they got to meet him in person upon his arrival in the office. He was a fifty-something man, with a small build, balding head and the moxie of an assistant hand on a modest Russian sailboat that had no visible ambitions of sailing far or even going anywhere.

As the staff adjusted to the new realities, they were shocked to witness boxes, presumably filled with paper, being ferried from the Yuri’s office (previously occupied by Mastermind) to the accounts department, from there to the basement and from there to “unknown destinations”. Shortly afterwards, the drills started. Let’s be clear, these were not fire drills but IT raid drills. A checklist of actions was circulated. It read: In the event of an IT raid, shred all the paper in your vicinity, delete all the emails sent and received on your official id, then exit the office with your laptop through the back door.

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“We are now working for the Russian mafia”. Jaws fell as the penny finally dropped. Two team members turned violently sick and took time off to recuperate (and hunt for new jobs).

And then, the worst fears of the staff got confirmed on a Thursday afternoon, just three weeks after the new regime had set in. “This is not a drill”, Yuri announced over the office bullhorn. But just as the mighty shredders went into loud service, an army of IT officials busted the place. They stopped the shredders, confiscated all the laptops, picked up all the remaining boxes and placed yellow tape across the office entrance.

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Staring at the closed front door with tape plastered all over it, Jatin clasped and unclasped his hands in apparent desperation. “Do you think they will check the internet browsing history of each laptop?”

“Possibly. Why?”, Savita asked.

“No, nothing major”, Jatin replied, too scared to say a word about the porn sites he had visited in the isolation of his hotel room during the offsite client visit. But the long stare he got from Akanksha meant that his guilt was no longer a secret. Frankly though, Jatin’s browsing of naughty websites was the least of the staff’s worries. Impatiently they waited for news – good and bad, but none came. The assumption was that Yuri had fled the country and the startup was shuttered for good on charges of financial mismanagement. Gradually, the staff moved on to other opportunities and cultivated life elsewhere.

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The story could have ended here. But then, there is this thing called randomness.

Four months later, one Saturday evening, while hosting a house party, Savita opened the door to collect the pizza that she had ordered online for her gang of new colleagues. As she handed the delivery man the cash, she suddenly felt a familiarity.

“Aren’t you Jatin from Tech?”, she asked in surprise.

“No, ma’am, you are mistaken”, the man fumbled in embarrassment.

“You are indeed, that voice”.

“No”, he replied as he hurriedly turned and fled down the stairs, with his pizza bag flung over his shoulder.

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(Sona Maniar is interested in philately, writing and sketching)

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