By Suresh Pattali
The flashing orange light on my office landline indicated either a missed call or a message (the ringer is always turned down). It was a colleague trying to find out if I had some candy lying around.
I am diabetic, as everyone in the office knows. Yet, I looked around for leftovers around my work station. Diabetic or not, it’s a habit to pile candy in certain easily-accessible spots around my work station. It’s where I stash my daily supply.
The candy culture had become a habit thanks to a colleague who systematically blew sugar into our circulatory system, like drug peddlers do with vulnerable schoolchildren. The call asking for candy was the fallout of pulling the plug on that long-time office habit overnight.
I read an essay in the ’70s by the British journalist, editor and author AG Gardiner who narrated a cruel joke Scottish novelist Walter Scott played on a classmate. This boy never failed to answer a question in class. Scott noticed how he stood up to answer questions and would play with a particular button on his waist coat. The boy’s brilliant brain always got his answers when he fingered the button.
One day, Scott removed the button on his coat when the boy wasn’t around, a mischief that led to a monumental tragedy. The next day, when the boy took the floor to answer a question, his finger slipped down to the particular button that typically unravelled his world of knowledge. It was not to be seen. He couldn’t give an answer ever again. According to Scott, the boy later “filled some inferior office in one of the courts of law at Edinburgh”. The poor fellow took to drinking and died. Moral of the story: a broken habit ruined a promising life.
Something similar happened to my colleague and friend, our ‘Candy Man’ in office. Till recently, he would walk into office every day with a haversack full of candy. He never bought them. His brother who used to roam markets as part of his job picked them as samples from various places in the UAE. The assortment he brought in were mainly fruit-flavoured. Mango was the most sought after, followed by tamarind. There was enough variety to satisfy everyone’s taste.
After making his presence felt with a noisy entry, he would first unpack the bag and transfer the candy into plastic containers. There was extra stock in the bottom drawer of his desk. The wiry guy would then float around office with a bowl delivering goods at each desk. He knew who liked what. It was a ritual that took under half an hour, a gesture straight from the heart. An altruistic effort to bring cheer into our mundane lives. “Sweeten your day,” he would say, offering the bowl to colleagues.
Our ‘merchant of sweetness’ acquired the candy culture growing up in Mumbai. Kids used to flock to the sweets kept in a church office in a Mumbai suburb and he was overwhelmed by the pleasure people derived. He brought sweets to work every day in the last eight years I have known him. He even stocked them in his office drawer for us whenever he went on leave.
Some time ago, the candy culture stopped.
Our Candy Man colleague’s brother was a habit in his life. They were a close family. They went shopping together. They planned holidays and foreign trips. They went for movies and ate out. They scoured sales and auctions in town and bought gadgets. Then one day death broke the habit that had defined their life.
It’s been a little over a year. Our friend hasn’t recovered. He stopped bringing candy to work. Some continue habits as a tribute to lost ones. Some don’t as the old habits become carriers of sorrow. Our friend chose the second option. He told me this week that he had called off a slew of habits.
Think of losing a family member who had been by your side, a part of your mental mechanism for decades. Think of the darkness and loneliness that person’s vacuum would cause.
While highlighting the importance of routine, Gardiner suggested we need to adjust to our circumstances, and not adhere to habits all the time. But that’s easier said than done when a person has been a loved habit.
Life has moved on in office without candy. Every once in a while, a colleague calls on the office phone to check. “Sweetness is in short supply in this world,” commented one of Candy Man’s old customers. No one asks our friend for candy, but everyone prays for sweetness to spring again from his wounded heart.
Suresh is senior editor. He believes procrastination ruins lives