New Delhi. December 25th, 1999. Six days to Y2K.
“This is really urgent.”
“Can we start next month?”
“We need to start you here in the next couple of days.”
Anurag frowned, gazing at the unusually large screen bearing the flight plans. His employer had saved him a seat on the only plane heading to Chicago. Today of all days.
“The timing is bad,” Anurag said over the phone, watching a couple and their six kids stroll to the exit. “My family is headed back from Calcutta now.”
“I know, I know. Just this last time, buddy.”
“I’m sorry James—.”
“Thanks a lot. Merry Christmas—”
“James, it’s not possible—”
The line was dead.
Anurag stood, torn amidst the pool of humans flooding the cool yet expensively decorated airport waiting hall. Colors of red and white and green plastered in every corner, spilling the spirit of Christmas, and yet Anurag could only stand in confused awe. How on earth did he come this far?
Working for a finance technology (or what his co-workers referred to as “fintech”) department of a luxury company came with its set of commitments. The year 2000 would start with a string of problems around the management of financial data, particularly those that had no mention of the century in the transactions. The early programmers had not foreseen that failing to depict the 19 in 1950 could pose a problem for computing beyond the 20th century. This was similar to how one makes local calls without the area code; the reference to a year had been made with two digits instead of four.
Anurag had been to the US quite a few times to deal with these issues when they happened, and he knew his way around downtown Chicago. His business visa was an aid to enter the US multiple times when his employer needed his expertise in solving rare problems. And now folktales were going around, speculations about how transportation and utilities would immensely fail on the first day of the new millennium and how the world would become a zombie-land of looters pillaging through the retail establishments. And today of all days, a single phone call from his employers would ruin his less ambitious plans for New Year’s Eve.
His phone buzzed. He didn’t have to see the caller ID to know who it was. His ringtone was a song from his least favorite musician. He had customized it intentionally.
“Hello.” He said, his heart slightly skipping as he heard that voice.
“Everyone is waiting. We’ll be needing some help with the rest of the family presents.”
“Is everything ok…hold on, it’s noisy here…” the caller said. Anurag could hear movement in the background and the sound of children yelling. What a shame he would miss them this Christmas.
“Ok, it’s quiet here, you were saying.”
“I can’t make it.”
The line went silent. For a moment, Anurag thought he heard her click her tongue. There was a sigh on the other end, and Anurag could hear Sumati’s voice again.
“Why do you do this?”
“It’s important to work, very important work.”
“More important than your family?”
“Stop this, please, Sumati. You know how badly I wish to be with my children right now.”
He heard her sniff. Someone was asking her what was going on. It was Karan. His heartbeat tripled.
The line was silent, embellished with Sumati’s ragged breath.
“What do I tell the children?” she said, her tone suddenly lenient and serious.
“Tell them I’m coming. I’ll call them first thing, when I reach the office—”
“I will not lie to my children.”
“It’s Christmas, Sumati. Don’t ruin it for the kids.”
“You already ruined it the instance you got this job that steals you from your family.”
“I can’t do this now, I have to go. Tell the kids I…hello? Hello?”
His screen was blank when he checked his phone. A flat battery. What a stupid phone, Anurag cursed. He was fuming when he made it through the queue.
Sumati and their three children, Karan, Abhi, and Chandra were visiting relatives in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata) for Christmas. He had been with them about hours ago; however, he had a few things to wrap up here in Delhi. That damned flight delay. For some reason, his flight took longer due to maintenance problems, and his family had reached Delhi ahead of him. What made it worse was that James would not stop his manipulative games, and now Anurag and his family would be responding to a problem that had been caused by a different generation. The problem in Chicago was something he could not overlook. Call it contractual obligations. That was something he would look into if he ever had to work elsewhere. They weren’t always employee-friendly, at least not at the family level. He would have to include ‘heavy family time’ in his ‘criteria for hire’ at any other gig he was getting in the US. This wasn’t the first time he would ditch a family function over ‘duty’. One time, Sumati had asked him to float his resume and look for a job that wouldn’t sap him of family life. She had mentioned that the kids complained he was hardly home, that they doubted he cared about them. Statements like these made Anurag hurt. Even then, his last talk with his younger son, Abhi hadn’t gone well. The boy had done something wrong and instead of correcting him as any loving father would, he had cut him short, reprimanding him for watching TV. Anurag stopped himself from blowing the incident out of proportion. He should go home. He really should. He badly wanted to. But he couldn’t. It was funny though. Just a week ago he swore to a resolution, although he was never the type to voice his change of heart, he had decided to make more time for his family. And here he was, ditching the resolution he had made for the New Year. Anurag managed to grin. On the brighter side though, he was going to see Jenny again.
Jenny was an assistant to James. She was a young pre-med undergrad from U Chicago, and that had reflected in her highly inquisitive nature. Her networking took her places, and in one of such places, they had met. Having entered the fearless middle-age where charm display was a must-have, Anurag immediately aligned himself with the wavelengths of outspokenness and the very strong “alpha” personality in Jenny. Anurag’s interests were wide, as was evident to Jenny. His spectrum of ‘likes’ went from English poets and travel journalists to running supply chains in manufacturing plants and medical device innovations.
As Anurag boarded the Air India flight, he drew parallels between Jenny and Sumati and how Y2K would perhaps be the slightest of the problems that needed fixing. The balance sheet of his life had long lost its balance, and he could no longer determine what a liability was and what wasn’t. As the plane started its takeoff, he could see the miniaturizing of popular old Delhi monuments through the window. The road was beautifully painted by dots of light, embellishing the ordinary-yet-enriching life of Delhi. As he strapped his seatbelts, Anurag had no idea that this was the last time he was seeing India.