One day, in August 1991, I got a telephone call from our Project Engineer Vikram Kulkarni. He was in Baroda and had gone to discuss a project with L & T for which our Company had submitted an offer. Kulkarni informed me that the General Manager of L & T, Datar wanted to have final discussions on our offer. I was then a Director with Artson Engineering Limited. Our Manager – Projects was in Visakhapatnam and as such, there was no way he could have joined Kulkarni at Baroda the next day. I decided to attend the meeting.
In those days flight to Baroda used to leave very early in the morning. I managed to get a ticket for the next morning, however, I was on the waitlist for my return flight that would leave Baroda late evening. I arrived in Baroda and straight went to Hotel Sunbeam, the usual haunt of our engineers, where Kulkarni was staying. We discussed our offer in details and then went on to meet with Datar at the appointed time. Datar was in a mood to finalize the order on us. We shook hands and concluded the deal by late afternoon. Datar promised to send a Letter of Intent (LOI) to us by Telex the next morning. On our return to the Hotel, we ascertained the status of my ticket. I was told that there was no chance of my getting a seat.
In the normal course, I would have asked Kulkarni to stay back to collect the LOI. Experience had taught me never to leave anything to chance as there could always be a slip between the cup and the lip - though I trusted Datar to do exactly what he had promised. Since I was not getting a ticket, I asked Kulkarni, who had confirmed ticket to Mumbai by Baroda Express, to proceed as planned. I would collect the LOI myself and then return by the next evening flight to Mumbai. I booked my journey accordingly. I always carried one set of clothes to take care of such exigencies. The next day was Saturday and anyways there was nothing urgent pending at my desk in Mumbai.
Instead of moving to the hotel I normally stayed, I decided to stay in the same room that was vacated by Kulkarni at the Sunbeam Hotel. After Kulkarni left, the Manager of the Hotel personally came with Register to the room to complete the formalities. He was very courteous. Obviously, Kulkarni had told him to look after me.
As I opened my bag to change, I noticed that I had forgotten to carry my rubber slippers. Fortunately, Kulkarni seemed to have forgotten to carry his brand new Hawaii slippers. The slippers were size 9 – one size smaller than what I am comfortable with. However, it did not matter. I packed Kulkarni’s sleepers in my bag as I checked out of the hotel the next morning. I duly collected the LOI and returned to Mumbai.
On Monday, first thing in the morning, I went to Kulkarni’s cubical that he shared with three other engineers. Kulkarni was busy studying a drawing and he did not notice me enter. I slammed the plastic carry bag in which I had wrapped the Slippers on his table and said loudly with mock anger.
“Kulkarni, I do not approve of such slip-ups”
Kulkarni was astonished and stood up with a start toppling back his chair in the process. Even the other three engineers stood up hearing my uncharacteristically loud proclamation.
“W-W-What – what slip up Sir?” Kulkarni stammered.
“You forget your slippers in Baroda and you expect your Director to carry it to Mumbai for you? Is it?” I thundered.
Kulkarni appeared thoroughly confused. “What slippers Sir? My slippers are at home”
I looked at the carry bag and gestured him to open it. Kulkarni looked at the slippers and gave me a confused look.
“I wear size 7 slippers and these are size 9.” He said lamely.
“So?” I asked continuing my acting.
“Well Sir,” Kulkarni said avoiding my eyes. “The Hotel keeps a pair of slippers for its customers in each Room. Perhaps, Sir, you brought those slippers, ---- er --thinking it to be mine..” His voice trailed.
My chin almost hit the floor as I opened my mouth involuntarily
My Secretary, Elveera made her appearance almost at the same moment. As we say in Marathi ‘Devasarakhi dhavoon aali’ (she appeared like a Goddess would).
“There is a phone call from the MD, Sir,” She said. “Should I transfer it to Kulkarni’s extension or you would like to take it in your Chamber?” She asked.
Without saying a word, I just turned around (collecting my chin in the process) and rushed to my cabin. The MD congratulated me for booking the order. We also discussed some other matters.
As I finished the conversation Elveera entered my cabin.
“Kulkarni is going to Baroda next week for a kick-off meeting with L & T, Sir.” She said. “He will carry the slippers back. He has already talked to the Hotel Manager over the phone.”
“Did Kulkarni tell the Hotel Manager that his boss is a Kleptomaniac?” I asked gingerly.
“I was not there when Kulkarni talked to the Manager, Sir,” Elveera said, trying to keep her face straight. “But I can always ask him if you wish” She continued.
Looking at my face, she could not control herself and burst out with laughter –the loudest laugh I had ever heard from her. I could not help but to join her in the merriment though I was feeling far from funny within!
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