How Blue is my Sapphire – 5

How far will you go for what you want?

Do you recall, not long ago
We would walk on the sidewalk
Innocent, remember?
All we did was care for each other

But the night was warm
We were bold and young
All around the wind blows
We would only hold on to let go

Blow a kiss, fire a gun
We need someone to lean on
Blow a kiss, fire a gun
All we need is somebody to lean on

[Major Lazer and DJ Snake – Lean On]

It was the third time the phone was ringing. I was sitting with my laptop, working on a pet project. The last 3 months had been quite life changing. I quit EatOrg, and soon after left to Canada for a month to travel and meet friends and relatives. The trip did good to me, and once I was back, I decided to go back to things I loved. My days were spent reading, writing, going to my contemporary dance class, cooking, coding and coloring. I joined Yoga Teacher Training Course at a premier Yoga Academy in the city, and that kept me busy.
I checked the phone, it was some unknown number. Truecaller suggested it was from Pune, but with MNP, one could no longer know. I finally picked it up.

“Vaani?”, the voice that I knew so well, spoke from the other end. “Aakaash? Where are you calling from? Whose number is this?” “I came down to Pune, you won’t believe whom I met here. Anyway, I am coming back tomorrow, and I want to see you as soon as I land. We will meet at the coffee shop near your house?”

From the moment I left the EatOrg premises, Aakaash had tried reaching out to me in more ways than one. There were incessant “I am sorry” texts, countless calls on phone, Skype and Whatsapp, and several emails on my personal e-mail ID. But I left for Canada soon, and avoided using any kind of mode of communication or social media – I was just not willing to deal with the mess I had left behind. The calls and messages eventually stopped, or so I thought, until today.

“Are you asking me to meet or ordering me to?”, I asked with a wry smile on my face. “I will be there at 5 pm. See you, bye.”, was all he said.

*****

It was 5 minutes past 5pm when I reached. Aakaash was already sitting there, but not alone. “Guess who I found at Pune.” It was Tarang. I looked at both of them, with utter disbelief. “Vaani before your eyes pop out, please sit down, we have already ordered your favorite Mocha. And yes, we all have a lot to say, and this is going to be a hell of a evening.” “Indeed guys, indeed.”, I was almost speaking to myself, but that came out aloud I guess.

“Guys I know I screwed it up”, started Aakaash. “EatOrg was our dream, it was a lovely idea, but in my greed to make money, I unintentionally sacrificed what EatOrg stood for – honesty and friendship. I lost two of my closest friends to my idiocy, and it has taken me a lot of courage to admit this, but guys, I was wrong. Vaani, soon after you left, we had another round of food poisoning incident. There were too many complaints this time, and someone informed the local Health Inspector, who along with his team, came to check our kitchens. Needless to say, our hygiene and quality of products resulted us to get slapped by heavy fines, and that’s when me and Dua had a fight. He blamed it all on my mismanagement and we, well he decided, that EatOrg needs to be sold off. Fortunately for us, a health and fitness cafe in Pune was willing to buy EatOrg, since they have been looking to expand to Bangalore as well. And guess what, Tarang is a part of Healthily.”

“Healthily is a family business of one of my B-School classmates,” began Tarang. “After I left EatOrg, I reached out to him. He too had been looking to revamp his cafe, and wanted some help to do the same. We found an angel investor who had faith in our vision and Healthily now has its own apps on all major smartphone platforms. When we got to know that EatOrg was up for sale, I convinced the investor to allow us to acquire them. We had only one condition though.”

“Which was??”, I was intrigued by now.

“That Ajay Dua would no longer be part of EatOrg.”, replied Aakaash. “Really??? And he agreed?”, I asked, flabbergasted. “Well he had no choice, there are several organizations after his tracks, his farm has had complaints of inhumane conditions and less than minimum wages being paid.”, said Tarang. “And that’s why we are here Vaani. I think EatOrg deserves another chance, and it needs you and your vision. And this time, nothing will go wrong.”, Aakaash shifted his chair and moved closer to the table, looking at me with anticipation.

I was quiet. None of us was saying anything, probably waiting for me to break the ice. After several moments of uncomfortable silence, I knew I had to speak. “I don’t want to be a part of this venture again.” Tarang and Aakaash stared at me, shocked. Tarang opened his mouth to say something, but I raised my hand and said, “I am not done yet.”

“From past 2 years, we have all been working towards EatOrg, equally hard. But for me, this journey has had a different meaning altogether. I realized that this is not my dream, it is you guys’. And while I have tried to do as good a job as I could, I realize that it wasn’t enough. In my bid to be a loyal friend to both of you, I continued to work for your visions, but I lost my own sense of self somewhere. In between your ego clashes, I got caught up for no reason. As much as I love you both, it is time I do something for myself, and myself alone. I think I am done sacrificing my dreams for your dreams.”

“But we need you Vaani”, began Tarang. “No Tarang you don’t. For if you had needed me, you would have stopped that day. You would have called me up, talked to me and we could have figured something out, like get another investor onboard, or something. For you, I was always there, but you chose to leave, because you have your own set of rules that you like to play by. Today you have come back, because the rules are your own. While there is nothing wrong with that, I don’t think I need that kind of drama any more in my life.” “Vaani I am sorry. I just needed time to figure out..” “Figure out what Tarang? That what is more important to you- your ambitions or your friends?”, I blurted out.

Tarang had nothing to say in his defence. He looked at Aakaash, and sighed,”Yaar, tu hi samjha isey, meri nahin sunegi ab. I think I should leave now.” “Let me drop you till the parking.”, Aakaash got up and left with him. Five minutes later, he was back.

“Vaani, dekh meri baat samajh, I know you are mad at him.” “No Aakaash, I am not mad at him. I am just tired, of fighting for others’ opinions. All this while, ever since college, all I have done is either fight for your opinion with him or vice versa. But in that process, somewhere, I think I lost my own voice of reason. There have been a lot of things that I did for the sake of our friendships, but it’s time I do something for me too.” I took out the ring from my purse, and placed it on the table. “You know Aaakash, they say a sapphire stands for honesty and wisdom. The more blue a sapphire is, the purer it is. I am your friend, and if you need me, I will always be there, but I need to do what makes me happy.”

Aakaash took the ring, and asked me,”So what are you going to do?” “A lot of things, actually”, for the first time in the entire conversation, I smiled. “I am doing a Yoga Teacher Training Certification, and will soon be qualified to teach. I have quite a few things in mind, some freelance coding projects and online articles, let’s see where it all goes.” “So this is it Vaani, for us?” “Of course not Aakaash, I will always be the friend you can lean on.” “Me too Vaani, me too.”, he held my hand in his.

“Acha listen, did you quit smoking?”
“Yes”
“Good.”

How Blue is my Sapphire – 3

How far will you go for what matters to you?

“This is insane! Saaley ka dimaag khraab hai! Has he lost it or what? Arey if we keep riding the high horse of ideals and morals at this initial stage, how are we ever going to break even!”, exclaimed Aakash loudly, probably shocked by the turn of events but kind of relieved to see the back of Tarang. “He has always been like this Vaani, I swear I am just so tired of him. And I am not budging from my stand this time, I can’t put up to his nonsense.” Aakash plopped down into the cushy bean bag, with his laptop, working on the presentation we were to have with the VC the next day. I took my laptop and sat with him, looking at the presentation, and trying my best to stop thinking about what just happened and how it might change our lives forever.

After that day, none of us ever mentioned Tarang. We informed our employees that Tarang had decided to leave over “incorrigible differences”, and that was the end of it all. No one talked about him, no one wanted to talk about him. We were busy and stressed, and we never contacted Tarang, and he obviously did not contact us. He was hardly active on any social media platform, and except the odd tags, I seldom heard of him.

A month after Tarang left, on my birthday, over a dinner of Italian in Chianti and red wine, Aakaash gifted me a sapphire ring. “Why sapphire?”, I asked and smiled. “There is something about that stone that reminds me of you, of how you have always been there, of how much you have done for me and the company. I want to say a lot more and I know you know about how I feel, but I want to give you some time to decide. The ring is to let you know that you are precious to me. ” There, he had said what I had always known. In that moment, just for a second, Tarang’s face came into my mind – how I always defended him, cared for him, and probably loved him, and how he never acknowledged it, and in fact chose to leave instead of listening to me and letting me reason out with Aakaash. But to Aakaash, the one person who never left my side, I said nothing and wore the ring happily on the ring finger of my right hand.

Months passed, we continued to work over EatOrg, but it was EatOrg only in name. We changed everything about it, from our business model to our basic principles. We scaled up all across the city, continued to source cheap ingredients and made tie-ups with corporates to provide “healthy eating”, by showing half-baked nutritional information.

But the biggest blow was when we got loaded with complaints by our customers for the dinner items for 5th January 2016. A lot of people developed food poisoning, with some of them even having to go to hospitals to get themselves treated. Some of them took to social media to air their grudges with EatOrg and the VC, Ajay Dua, called an urgent meeting at 4 in the morning, with Aakaash and me.

“Dekho, nothing to worry. I have called you folks to let you know that I have everything handled.” Ajay was a show-off, albeit fair and handsome with light eyes, dressed in his Armaani suit even at 4 am, while me and Aakaash looked like we were kicked out of our respective beds. “We will refund the money to all the customers, and I have already spoken to my lawyer, if in case anyone complains, we will figure it out. Meanwhile, you guys keep working on the app, and tomorrow morning you will get your supplies from my farm as well.” Ajay got up and left after giving us our instructions, and Aakaash went near the window to light up a smoke. He had started smoking after Ajay insisted him to “share a light” with him.

“Dua is a good man, isn’t he? ” Aakaash, spoke while blowing out circles of smoke from his mouth. “That guy takes care of everything, I don’t know what would we do without him.” “Can I have a drag at that cigarette?”, I asked him. “What? Seriously? You are the one who tsks at me each time I do it!!!” “You were more anti-smoking than I am, back in college. I want to see what is so addictive about blowing smoke rings like a pro” “Fine”, as usual he gave up, albeit sullenly and handed me his cigarette. I took a drag, and as expected, I coughed. Aakaash quickly fetched me a glass of water and said agitated,”I told you to not do it Vaani, you can’t handle it. Have some water now.” I took another drag, my eyes were welling up due to the smoke, but this one was better than the last one. I continued, and got better at it.

Couple of minutes later, I stopped. I felt light-headed and decided to head home. As I lay in my bed, I kept thinking how far had I come, and if this is what I truly wanted to do. I remembered how I was a simple girl in college, a chatterbox, keen to study only as much as required, but willing to do everything else – read, dance, act, write, even travel alone to dingy food joints for delicious Chicken noodles! I “fell in love” quite often, and got hurt too, but it just added to my strength and my spirit of doing things only for myself. What happened to me? When was the last time I read a good book? Or ate something I liked? When was the last time I went for a movie that I liked, instead of the usual team outings? Ever since EatOrg took off, it had just been work, work and work. I used to enjoy working, I loved my previous job. I thought having my own venture would provide me even greater professional satisfaction. But wait a second, was that venture even mine at the first place? It was Tarang’s idea and Aakaash’s money and scruples (or the lack of them), that made EatOrg. I was maybe just the third wheel, carrying along, but not really needed or sought after. But isn’t that what friendship is? Standing by your friends forever, supporting them in everything they do? Not everyone has to be a hero, and I was quite happy being behind the scenes. But was I?

EatOrg, producing finest dishes with locally sourced organic ingredients, it sounded like a joke. Everyone who was working with procurement, knew that our definition of locally sourced organic food was limited to the sprawling farm of Ajay Dua at Coorg, where several laborers worked day in and out to get maximum produce possible. Fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals, you name it and Dua used them in the farm. We had no choice but to abide by his rules, he was our venture capitalist only at this condition. Dua was a man who thought only about profits. Hence he conceived the horrendous idea of marrying EatOrg to his farm and its chemical produce. So many times, because of poor storage and transport conditions (cost cutting), the vegetables we received would be rotten. And we had no choice but to make do with them, since we were bound by our contract to not source our ingredients from any other place. The quality of ingredients was such that it seemed surprising to me that we got food poisoning issue after 6 months of using Dua’s produce – the insect-filled cauliflower and the black mushrooms can put even the best of stomachs to test. No wonder all our good chefs left, no one wanted to touch rotten vegetables!

The thought-mill in my head was running hard and fast, and with these thoughts I looked at the sapphire shining from my ring on the bedside table. It looked intense, so blue, that for a second I got intimidated, it felt like the blueness of it pierced through my eyes and penetrated into my soul, asking me uncomfortable questions about my allegiance and honesty, the answers to which I knew, but didn’t want to admit…

How Blue is My Sapphire – 2

How far will you go for what matters to you?

“Buzzingaaa”, yelled Tarang, right at the top of his voice. “Shut up yaar, what kind of moron has a food app sounding like an energy drink?”, Aakaash replied, annoyed. I laughed, “Sure Tarang, let’s call it Buzzingaaa, and “buzz” this nonsense out of Aakaash’s mind. Buzz Buzz Buzzzzzzz”. “You guys are mad, I don’t know why am I even doing this with you. I had to literally beg for money from my dad, do you folks have any idea how hard it is? And he is expecting the money back!!” I could sense Aakaash was about to lose it and decided to intervene. “Ok Ok fine, lets call it EatOrg. We provide healthy meals prepared from locally sourced organic raw materials, EatOrg makes sense.” “Yayy EatOrg!!!!”, Tarang screamed again, Aakaash put his hands on Tarang’s mouth and said “And the first rule of EatOrg – no yelling please!!!”
EatOrg was our dream, our baby. We had spent a lot of our free time in college discussing the problems of farmers – Aakaash’s father was a traditional landlord in the heartland of UP, and he shared with us many tales of the plight of farmers – their struggles with erratic irrigation, apathetic authorities, lack of knowledge about scientific methods to farm, the vicious circle of loans from money lenders on high rates – it was depressing to hear about farmers grappling with such grave problems for years, with no help. Some good Samaritans though, like Aakaash’s dad and grandfather themselves, had taken upon the task of counselling small farmers about their rights and in particular, scientific, organic ways of farming without the extensive use of expensive fertilizers and chemicals for greater produce.
It was while discussing this that one fine day, after Aaagaaz 2011, that Tarang came up with the idea of having restaurant that served food prepared from locally sourced organic ingredients. Tarang was like that, creative, always brimming with ideas, several of which would be crazy. But this stuck with all of us, and we decided to get back to it whenever we could. In December 2014, Tarang came down to Bangalore, where me and Aakaash were slogging in our regular IT jobs, and got us to sit together in a Starbucks to discuss EatOrg. We spent 6 hours together that day, debating everything from name to sourcing of ingredients, office space, designing of website and mobile apps, so on and so forth.

By July 2015, we were live and how! It took Tarang’s relocation to Bangalore, coding marathons nights, shouting matches, and furious pursuit for funding to get EatOrg in the market. But there was stiff competition. All of sudden, everyone was online. We were trying to foray into an extremely competitive space, and the rumors of start-ups closing every now and then scared us. It was then when the first crack started appearing.”Aakaash bhai this is not done. You do know that we have to have organic ingredients only.” Tarang looked tired, but his voice bore a strength. “Tarang listen, this is a business. We have our VC to answer to. How do you think we are going to scale up to NCR and Pune? We have to make profits, else no one will give us any money to run EatOrg. ” Aakaash sounded desperate, and as if to drive his point across, he said , ” Dekh yaar Tarang, let me put it this way. I took loan from my dad to make this happen, Vaani invested all her savings. You on the other hand had no money in hand, because you had taken loan for your MBA and had to pay your monthly EMIs.” “What do you want to say Aakaash, that I have no say in this because I couldn’t invest any money? This is what this is about, isn’t it? Money!!!” Tarang lifted his favorite 3×3 Rubik’s cube from the desk and flung it at the wall in rage. I had never seen him this angry before.

“Both of you had jobs after B.Tech. I had to go for MBA because I didn’t. And don’t forget, it was my brain-child. I convinced you both, else you would have still been slogging in your lame jobs, fighting for the next promotion or an overseas opportunity.” Tarang’s words turned meaner and meaner.
“Tarang say whatever the fuck you want to, the fact remains that this company has mine and Vaani’s hard-earned money and we have to recover our investments back. This is a business and not a charity. The customers are hardly going to know the difference between organic and non-organic ingredients and once we start making money, we will source raw materials from local farmers also. But for now, we have to tie up with the organic farm our VC has suggested. ” Aakaash was trying to keep his calm, but I could see the lines around his eyes getting sharper.
“You know it pretty well Aakaash that the VC is a money sucker. That organic farm of his is a sham and they employ several laborers at pitiable rates to work day in and out in that farm. But since you want to be a businessman, suit yourself. I can’t be associated with you anymore. Vaani, I am leaving.”
Tarang reached for the door and turned back. I could see it in his eyes, his silent plea to stop him, to reason out with Aakaash as always, to take his side and explain things better to Aakaash. “Tarang, I understand what you mean, but Aakaash has a point here. Let’s sit and discuss, shall we? Let me order two chilled beers for you folks, let’s talk this out.”
“Vaani there is nothing left to talk, you seem to have made your stand pretty clear.” With that, Tarang turned the door knob and left, without looking back.