The Cat Who Copied - a short story

“Did you know that pet cats copy the behaviour of their masters?” said Rohan, the king of trivia and a good friend at work. We were both friends and batchmates from the same engineering college. And now both of us had joined the same company.

“Do they, now? I didn’t know”, I responded wryly. I was not interested in his trivia.

How could I be? I had just been given a good dressing down by my boss in the glass conference room. Others could probably not hear what was said inside the glass chamber, they could still make out I was getting a scolding.

This was not the first time he had scolded me. Today, my boss was unhappy with the piece of software code I had written. It was so badly done that it would need to be redone by someone else. Because of this, the whole team would miss the deadline. This was not the first time I had screwed up, but today it was bad.

The scope of his shouting broadened to my performance in general. He said that off late, I had been tardy, been missing deadlines and not been coming prepared to meetings. There were a ton of other unflattering things he said, but even I silently agreed with these three. He could not run a team competitively when my individual performance was not up to the mark. He was right up to this point.

Then he had called me lazy, but he was wrong about this one. Ever since I had joined the company and his team about a year ago, I had been trying really hard. It was just that I could not get a handle on the work - possibly because I was not enjoying it. To be honest, I was hating it.

Over time, the pressure of not being able to keep up kept pushing me further down a spiral, and I could not find a way out of it.

Over the last year, I had learnt it was best to keep quiet and not argue back during such scoldings. My philosophy was that a boxing match would not last long and end in a quick knockout if I did not return the punches.

“Cat got your tongue?” he asked when I didn't even respond to the lazy label. He gave himself a pause... his throat was probably dry from all the shouting. “Can not have you on my project team anymore. Go report to human resources for your next assignment. Get out!” he said with the finality of a man tired with anger.

So, this time I was not going to escape from this latest screw up with just a scolding. I had been thrown out of the team. Somehow, this was not surprising to me.

The silver lining was that I was not being fired from my job just yet. But what do I know? Too many idle staff on the bench and a bad personal performance review from my boss… it was possible human resources would fire me from the company anyway. This thought made the silver lining look like a sliver lining.

I might as well start looking for options outside the organization before human resources shows me the door, I thought. I will start working on my résumé tonight. 

With these thoughts, I came out of the conference room and went straight to Rohan. I needed some cheering up and Rohan was the best person to do it. We went to the cafeteria and hid ourselves in a corner. He was obviously curious about what had happened. So I told him that I had been thrown off the team. He got worried and wanted to know more. So I recounted the tirade as accurately as I could. So accurately, in fact, that I mimicked our boss.

“Cat got your tongue?” I repeated my boss' words for Rohan. I served this mimicry with an unflattering face, lips pouted as if for a selfie but with a frown so deep, my eyebrows dipped all the way into my eyes. I vented and Rohan laughed.

When cats got mentioned, Rohan brought up this trivia about cats copying their masters. He always had some trivia ready on his cuff. He thought it would lighten my mood.

“That’s why we use the phrase copy cats, yes?” He added somewhat redundantly.

But the trivia was not helping. I still had a lot of worrying to do about what I will do next. "I don't think I have a future in this organisation. Maybe I will find another job", I thought out loud.

“Why not a start-up?” Rohan asked. “Stop worrying about working for someone else. I will help you work on a business plan over the weekends. What do you say?”

He did have a point. It is cool these days for young people to start new business ventures. So cool, in fact, that it has a fancy unpronounceable name - entrepreneurship! But it seemed a far-fetched idea for me. I did not say anything to Rohan though. 

We chatted for some more time. Rohan did his best to cheer me up. Later I went and reported to human resources. Then I waited on my desk until 6 p.m. to leave for the day.

The shouting by my boss had been the highlight of my day. To give another boxing analogy - the shouting had made me keenly aware of what it would be like getting beaten up by an angry Mike Tyson with my hands tied behind my back. And today, my Tyson had battered me black and blue and the beating had been rather public.

A year ago, I had joined this company believing that I would do so well, they would start dusting the CEO chair for me in a few years. But the glass of my confidence had started cracking just a few months into the job. I did not understand most of what I was required to do. Today, the glass had finally shattered. I would now need an eternity to earn back even a shred of confidence.

So I decided to distract myself from all that had happened. And for some strange reason, my mind decided to focus on Rohan’s trivia about cats.

Cats? What the hell! Why was I thinking about cats?

This was strange. All my life, I had never given cats much thought. I had always thought of them as skulking creatures whose only business was to use their claws to slay little mice and use their shiny eyes to scare little children at nighttime. Another childhood source of information had painted an unflattering picture of cats… I am talking about Tom and Jerry. Boy, did I love Tom getting beaten up! But today...

Pet cats... copycats?

There was a strange ring to it.

I reached home, a small rented flat - good for a working bachelor staying away from his hometown. I showered, changed, finished my dinner and switched on my laptop. No time for TV tonight. Need to start typing my résumé - I need to send it out as soon as possible.

Should I use the copies of my previous résumés as a starting draft? Maybe not. 

I have always loved writing. Though I have not written much other than project reports at college, I have always known I will take up writing at some stage in my life. For now, I will have to be content with writing a fresh résumé document.

I typed my name on top of a blank document. Below it, I typed the key headings - Objective, Education, Work Experience, Skills and References.

Let’s start with Objective, the first heading.

In my mind, the real objective was to make the most amount of money doing the least amount of work. I had not liked the work I had done over the last one year. So it was best to do the least amount of it, I thought. Of course, the reality could not become words on the document.

Either way, I knew Objective was the most useless section of the résumé and that no interviewer would give it even a cursory glance. Objective on a résumé is like a ‘Dear’ or a ‘Thank you’ or a ‘Warm regards’ in the email you write to the coworker you wish to drown with your own hands. The words mean nothing to you. Your coworker knows it too. But you lie anyway because a familiar lie is better than an unfamiliar truth.

Still, this section must carry some heavy adjectives… so I typed ‘motivated’, ‘self-learner’, ‘effective’, ‘responsible’, ‘innovative’, ‘experienced’ in Google. It threw up a marvellous lofty Objective from someone’s résumé.

Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V done! Objective done.

On to the next heading: Education.

Then suddenly: RRRRRRRRRING! My phone rang.

It was dad. “How are you? How is work?” He started with the two customary questions every time he called.

I hoped dad hadn’t spoken to Rohan before calling me. The possibility of this was bleak. Even if he had, I bet Rohan would not sell me out. So I took the chance: “I am fine, dad”, I replied. Then created a normal day story that rolled smoothly off my tongue.

He responded to my lies exactly the same way he does every week. I was relieved he didn’t know about today. And I wondered at my creative talents and what a success I would be, when I started writing!

“Have you been feeding your cat?” He asked next. Cat? What cat? Oh… dad had actually asked: “Have you been cleaning your flat?” I had misheard.

The discussion had now moved to dad’s most frequent and unresolved complaint about the cleanliness of my flat. But today I heard ‘cat’! And now ‘cat’ started ringing again in my head, only this time in dad’s voice… the same stern voice that had always told me what to do, ever since I was old enough to do anything.

I was glad dad’s calls were brief. These calls are full of the same boring conversation about the importance of doing well at my job and keeping my flat and office desk clean, etc, etc, etc. Thankfully, today’s call was no different - short and boring. As I watched my laptop screen go to sleep, I thought even a laptop could not handle the boredom of the conversation that it was overhearing.

I finally gave dad some more credible noise about how I was keeping my flat clean. We wished each other good night.

Back to the résumé; where was I, now?

Ah, the Education section.

Science in class XII… engineering for graduation… I keyed in my vital statistics and other details.

Dad had carefully planned my career for me. Once he had decided on my career, he started deciding role models for me too. "Look at Jitesh. He now has a great job with prospects of a U.S. posting. All because he went to the country's top engineering college. You must do exactly like him", he had told me.

If I had never met Jitesh, how could I be inspired by him? His family was somewhat distantly related to us. I had seen his parents at a few weddings. They were normal people. But once their son gained admission to a top college, they became heroes to my dad’s generation. Now, they were highly venerated at every social gathering where they ran a special training for the eager wannabes like my dad. The training was titled, “whipping an unwilling mule to make it run like a horse”. My dad learnt well and implemented all the learning on the mule he had sired.

This whipping really is the psychological warfare that our parents wreck on us, all in the name of an upbringing that guarantees economic success through good academics. First, they launch a frontal infantry attack of success stories. Every news story about young engineers getting the country’s highest pay packets, is shared with us. Role models - like Jitesh - cut deep in our chests.

After this frontal attack, parents flank us with their cavalry of guilt. The guilt cavalry comprises money they spent on our tuition and not on a new car for themselves, and the sacrifice of their social commitments to allow us to study in peace, and whatnot.

The only way for us children to come out alive from this war is by making it to a top college. Then the attacks stop and we get labelled as the offspring worthy enough to carry the family name and family genes. I secretly believe that my dad did this so that he could run his own training programme like the one being run by Jitesh’s parents. But - sadly for him - I only managed a low-ranked college. Ironically, it was dad's dreams that were shattered.

Dad’s hunger for my success is so typical of the middle class... the middle class that runs a relay race - passing a baton of their own unfulfilled dreams to the next generation. He might have been less hungry if he had had his own engineering degree.

But, that is how education is done. And, the Education section in the résumé too is done.

Work Experience. I moved to the next section.

I typed my employer's name... details of the project... lots of details to fill in there.

The start of this employment journey too had started with my college résumé. To get this job I had to present myself to many suitors, until one such suiter deemed me worthy of a monthly paycheck. The job offer from them meant that all my parents’ sacrifices and disappointments finally had some decent cash value. It also meant I would get really drunk that night.

Like getting into an engineering college needed role models, getting this job too would not have been possible without my new role models - the alumni of our college. Recruiters make sure they bring over our alumni for their presentations. These presentations take place long before the hiring process and these alumni tell us how great the recruiters are... and how rewarding their own jobs are.

Till a year ago, these very jokers could be seen lurking on campus wearing broken slippers. And now they were flashing out their new credit cards and paying for our drinks! Wow! I wanted to be like them. Jitesh was no longer required as a role model and his void was filled by these happy alumni singing perfect tunes of praises of their employers.

Okay! Enough reminiscing. Back to the résumé.

Next section: Skills.

What skill had I really gained from the one-year of patchy employment? Missing deadlines? Delivering poor quality work? Making my boss angry… that’s a good one. But again, I can’t write what I think. Stop thinking… that’s the key.

So I stop thinking and key in the latest computer languages and software development packages. I wrote only what my potential interviewers would care for. This was soon done too.

By now I was tired. I had pushed myself long enough for a day. I saved the résumé document and shut down the laptop. I can finish up the rest and polish it up tomorrow.

It was 1 a.m. but sleep was still elusive. A stroll downstairs might do me some good. I locked my flat behind me and went downstairs. 

The streets were well lit and a slight breeze was blowing. Because it was a working day tomorrow, thankfully there were no teenagers breaking the silence of the night.

I had spent the last few hours doing my résumé. And it had started to take a decent shape too. But other than its shape, there seemed nothing decent about it. It really was just a document of half-truths - meant to show enough to generate the interviewer’s interest and hiding enough to avoid not getting shortlisted for an interview. I was a bit ashamed of myself.

I finished my walk and as I was about to enter the porch of my building, a cat’s meow startled me. I couldn’t make out its colour but it was some dark shade of brown. Before it rustled back into the bushes, it did give me a long hard stare. Almost as long as I stared back at it. The stare was almost hypnotic for me.

A cat! Of course! That’s what I was... a cat… with a résumé documenting a life spent copying my masters.

My résumé was supposed to say who I was. But all it now said was what others wanted me to do or what others expected me to be. None of the stuff in it - my education, my employment - had been really decided by me. Getting a degree or a job had all been a never-ending exercise of chasing one role model after another… only, they kept changing from Jitesh to my alumni and so on. At this rate I was guaranteed to go round in circles all my life.

For all the meek and confused folk like me, the whole world is starting to look like a grocery store full of role models of all possible brands. The only other kind of people are the singers who make a living singing praises of these role models. Singers like my parents, the alumni and even biographers. All are busy feeding the legends. It is now almost an unwritten rule that the only way to success is in the footsteps of these legends. Biographies are templates of greatness, but written by lesser people, for lesser people to follow. Many “lesser” people like me have been pushed on to a road to greatness… only it is their road and not mine.

This is heavy! Heavy enough for my eyelids. Time for bed.

Next day at work, Rohan came whistling to my desk. He was smiling. In his hand, he held something gift wrapped.

“Go on”, he handed it to me.

I unwrapped a book - Steve Jobs’ biography. “Read it”, he said. “This is going to be your bible in case you want to become an entrepreneur. He was an original. And you too will need to become like him if you want to be a successful entrepreneur."

Was he suggesting I try a startup because he had assumed I would not get another job? Whatever he was thinking, there was something else that was not right about this gift and what he had said.

He suggested that I become an original LIKE Steve Jobs? Now I have got to copy someone to become an original! My friend was a singer too!

Nothing against Rohan, though, he means well.

Nothing against Steve Jobs either, but hopping from role model to role model was tiresome business. And I couldn’t take it anymore.

“The cat who copies is still a cat. It will never become a tiger.”, I said. “But thanks, man! Please return this book. I'll talk to you later about it. Okay? Bye!”

Rohan was perplexed as he left my desk, the rejected gift in hand.

With that, I opened a fresh document. And I started typing my resignation letter, entirely original and in my own language, straight from the heart… no Google business… no more role models.

Finally, my first original piece of writing.



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