The boss sits behind his desk, a wall of awards and diplomas behind him. A long table extends from the front of his desk, so that by sitting at his desk he is also at the head of the table, but across the desk from the nearest of the others sitting there. Opposite him, at the far end of the table, is his top deputy. We sit along the long sides of the table: people who need something or people hired to help.
The deputy brought us into the room before the boss was there. We sat talking quietly among ourselves, taking in his desk and the wall of awards as though studying an empty throne for clues to the coming majesty. But when he arrived, the boss seemed quite ordinary. The moment he appeared he was chatting with his deputy, as though continuing a previous conversation. Meanwhile, he took his seat, looked around on his desk, glanced at his computer, and finally looked at us. Now the meeting could begin.
But it didn't begin. Instead, the boss continued chatting with his deputy, then gradually included us. At first it was smalltalk. Perhaps we were taking time to adjust to his presence, and he to ours. Finally it seemed we were approaching our agenda, but just then, the first of the couriers arrived.
Men of middle age, middle size, and all-around middleness, each courier entered at will and stood to the boss’s right, body half turned to him, head very slightly bent forward, patiently awaiting a nod. On that cue, the courier brought out a large battered file folder and reverently laid it before the boss, opening it to the first of a pile of documents.
As our conversation spiralled toward its topic, the boss began to sign.
As one of us spoke, he’d glance down at a document, then decide if it needed more scrutiny. If so, he’d pick it up, as though weighing it or holding it to the light, while gesturing that we should keep talking. With the document before him, he would appear to read, but perhaps that was just the slight circular oscillation of his head that Indian men often do in conversation, the one that means “I hear you, more or less, and it sounds fine so far, but I’m not committing to an opinion.”
Abruptly, the boss would set down a document,
his pen in his right hand, look up at us, and pause there for a crucial
second, as though suddenly intent on what we were saying. Then, not
looking down, he'd quickly scribble his signature and push the page
aside, where the courier promptly collected it.
So he proceeded through the folder as we talked. Finished, he nodded to the courier, who closed the folder, took it, and withdrew from the room. By now, another courier was waiting.
Still fainter presences also graced the room. Very quiet men, often very young or very old, brought trays of coffee or tea, carefully setting one down in front of each of us, starting with the boss of course. Of these men nobody took notice. We were to act as if the cups had simply appeared, by some quiet unsurprising magic. At first I nodded my thanks to these servers, but gradually sensed that this was unwanted; it made them look like they’d failed in their duty to be invisible.
How did the meeting proceed? At some point the boss began saying, as his own idea, something a bit like
what we’d been telling him. His deputy
quickly repeated it back to him. We
continued repeating, back and forth, a theme and variations. Nobody summarized the decision reached, or
identified action items. Nobody took minutes,
though it’s not clear what minutes could of looked like … perhaps a circular
diagram of some kind, a mandala or labyrinth.
Finally, there was a courier with a message. The boss was needed. He rose slowly to go, making his final variations on the theme of our meeting. In the afterglow of his exit, the deputy explained what had been decided: We could brief the boss’s boss. In that office, of course, we would find another desk and long table, but now the boss would take the deputy’s chair while his deputy sat to the side. And as we chatted amiably, awaiting this boss's presence, warm cups of tea would appear before each of us, as if served by invisible hands.