The book ‘Joker in the Pack’ co-authored by Ritesh Sharma and Neeraj Pahlajani is the story of a young man enrolled at one of the IIMs- India’s leading business schools. This novel traces the journey of a twenty two year old Shekhar Verma from his school days to his arrival in New York as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton- BAH in short. With the journey of life, the novel also traces the way in which the protagonist comes to a fuller and better understanding of himself by reassessing the phases in his career by self- appraisal.
In the simplest of the terms, a joker in a card game is that extra card which can be substituted for any card, if the need arises, and which will have a value above it. The protagonist, therefore, thinks of himself as that card which, if chosen, can and does, prove to be the most powerful one. He is the dark horse, so to say, the powers of which have not been tested and could prove to be beneficial towards the end. The concluding part of the novel places the protagonist as the hero or more precisely, the super hero for the feat which he has accomplished. It is then the story of a person who lives a life which is kingsize. Looking at the way the story takes shape, any other title could have proved to be a misnomer. Mr Shekhar Verma works hard and it pays off well- landing him an admission and later a job which is envied by one and all of the middle class. The character, the events leading to the finishing line are all what contributes to the title of the story. As the story progresses the unexpected turns into the expected and the unpredictable into the predictable. The subtitle serves to highlight the candid confession by the author about his attitude to his alma mater.
The dedication at the beginning of the work declares:
the great Indian middle class.
For we don’t know
if what we are today,
is because of them
or despite them.”
While the Prologue announces “At age twenty two, Shekhar Verma had finally arrived”, the epilogue says “I looked back and realized that while I had been a successful middle class dream, I had lost Anoushka, the person for whom I had embarked upon the journey to realize the dream”. The ‘fire’ in Shekhar was ignited by Anoushka at the initial point which is finally lit up towards the end.
It is in only in the final act of the novel that the hero accomplishes success after facing several harrowing rounds of interviews. The saga of a hitherto spoilt youngster- on the verge of collapse who picks up a thread and makes it to the top- comes full circle. The reversal of fortune for the young man is the climax of the story, the hero not realizing that there was a ‘fire’ within him. The fact that he had lost purpose in life and did not take life seriously aptly sums up the title ‘Joker in the Pack’. The protagonist is, in colloquial terms, a wildcard entry:
“In light of these astounding numbers I felt like I had been a joker in the pack. Amongst such distinguished aces and kings, I had been the wild card who had fit into different combinations as required and got the best deals possible for himself. ….I was now living a dream I couldn’t even weave before getting into IIMB.”(189).
The irony lies in the fact that the Mr Verma does not realize or see the fire in himself at the beginning:
“We know but fail to see,
That all it takes to be a star, is an unending fire.”
He however, realizes that
“the only thing separating us
from being a star,
is the lack of fire within our hearts.”
It is only just in time that he achieves what he does at the end.
At the beginning of the novel the reader finds that it is the story of a kid passing through adolescence and turning into an adult. He is almost a picaro, with no serious intention in life, enters college and who at the behest of a classmate checks himself on time and is saved from failure in the college exams. The role played by Anoushka is important as she is the one who teaches him to work hard so much so that he realizes it is no good to tell her the use of ‘farras’. The saga of an unseen hero would have been lost had it not been for the labour of the author in penning it down.
It also does talk about middle class values, especially the kind of pressure that parents exert on their children, courtesy themselves and their relatives. The presence of uncles and aunties is felt very strongly in the first part of the story who by their omnipresence dictates terms of life. The ifs and buts of life are better understood by life seniors and hence they are passed onto younger generations. The best way to make money was:
“the ‘safe way’of an MNC job, as a ‘government job’ had been before liberalization.” (98)
It also shows the kind of pressure that is built up by the society in which we live. It is the uncles and aunties who try to invade lives of the young by questioning them. They are often seen commenting as to what is expected of the younger generation, for eg, if a certain percentage is not scored, the children might not get admission into good institutions and the like.
“This eternal urge to label kids as heroes or zeroes depending upon their scores, institutes and ultimately pay packages that typified the middle class was driving me crazy. The extras kept harping about being good in studies, shaping a good career, living a respectful life, whereas all that they actually wanted to say was ‘make money’.” (97)
And the young who seem to ward off these at the beginning are seen to realize things later. Needless to say that parents enjoy life vicariously, something that they could not achieve has been achieved by their children. Ultimately parents do not wish their children to have a difficult life as theirs. In fact the parents feel proud of their children at their achievements. The heads of parents, siblings, relatives, friends (the list is long!) are held high by virtue of the hard work of others
Life at the IIM is the tale of life at India’s most reputed management school as told in the words of an insider. This is a story with a difference – that the losers become the winners. It is not a story “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” or a story which is “heard no more”, it is a story about living life with its odds and uncertainties. Life as led by an IIM alumnus has been immortalized in this story.
The story of Shekhar Verma is the story of life at its best. What better moral standards can parents set for the young ones if not this one? An unforgettable lesson of life- that it is difficult to get into an IIM and all the more difficult to remain a part of it- as described in the story. If one does not move fast enough from the day he steps in- from ragging days where all the freshers are fooled into a pseudo placement talks to the final days when one tries to get a foothold for the summer placements. Life is difficult and indeed stressful. It is just a handful of people who live up to the traditions of IIMs and a life after the IIM. A scene from the placement time says it all:
“Truth be told, I knew that was my chance. It would actually be the start to the life I had always wanted all along. Champak was right, I slept with those stars in my eyes too. But at that point, I realized I was getting cold feet. If I failed here, I would be devastated….The grade was there. The extra curricular activities were there. ….. Yet I still felt that no matter what I did I might not make it, that the chances of realizing my dream were too slim. I would be happy only when I got the offer.”(174-5).
The race for summer placements and jobs teach a few things like modesty:
“A long time back, I had held the belief that I, The Shekhar Verma, was born to rule the planet. And entry into IIMB had further strengthened that belief. But the summer placements had been a humbling experience and all I had achieved was the ‘Day Two’ tag and self doubt.”
An important assessment made by Shekhar is the role of money in life. Is money the sole end? Is travelling in business class the best? The reference to traveling in economy and no frills flights has been used quite frequently in the story. To be a little philosophical- what can there be after money? Or for that matter the kind of life that one leads – working day in and day out- the world’s best thing? Do the most sought after colleges promise such a life which is to be emulated by one and all?
“Once Day Two shortlists were made public, complete pandemonium took over. Janta started crying left, right and centre. I stood there watching the scene unfold in front of my eyes. The sense of bereavement in the waiting room gave it a look of a mourning family. Was a job worth so many tears?” (91)
Last but not the least is the assessment of the role that friends play in one’s life. Be it good or bad, but friends are forever. Friends are invaluable as guides and mentors. They teach you to adjust and be compatible in the way one is put in. They teach one the value of tolerance and brotherhood.
“We looked at each other and nodded as we sensed our brotherhood was strong enough to resist the blows being dealt out by the placement process.” (92)
“I was touched and noticed that most of the 35 Day Zero recruits were sitting there fully dressed too, in a sign of support for the rest of us. As long as they are getting what they want, IIM guys can be really nice people- it’s just the expectations we have that are so high, that it’s hard to get us what we want all the time.” (88)
Towards the end there is a sense of nostalgia for the games that IIMs had played:
“The feeling I had when I put my initials against my roll number at IIMB for one last time was absolute ecstasy. Years and years of slogging, and this is what it had come down to- a signature that told me I was about to start on the lifestyle I had waited all my life for- money, flashy cars, jet setting across the most happening cities in the world- there was nothing more in the world I wanted at that point in time.” (187)
The strength of the novel lies in the following which is the climax:
“Back in my room after the end of placements, I wondered at the nature of the game I had just been part of. You had to play it like a market and benefit from the unfair nature of the market. A market always reminds me of a mandi– a city wholesale bazaar, and the job market is no different than a mandi. There are good deals on offer and bad deals on offer…. Just like a mandi, you have to know what vegetable you want and then be smart enough to assess the price at which the vendor will sell it to you…..Use whatever means, beg, borrow, steal or get the market data before anybody else does, do whatever you want, but make sure you get the vegetable you came looking for.” (96)
The realization also of the fact that money is a side product of talent:
“This philosophy prevails despite the fact that some of the richest and the most popular people in the world have been entrepreneurs or skilled artists who backed their talent and, consequently, money became incidental. It would, I realized, be some time before kids would actually be encouraged to pursue their interests rather than test scores.” (98)
Such a realization has a cathartic effect on the hero and the readers as well. After the big offer, he gets the relief of not having failed himself or his ‘middle class’ family. This is the psalm of life, a self reappraisal which holds true to the society that Shekhar belonged to. The Epilogue states with finality that with the material gain, the protagonist has suffered a personal loss:
“I looked back and realized that while I had been a successful middle-class dream I had lost Anoushka, the person for whom I had embarked upon the journey to realize the dream.” (195)
The protagonist has re-examined himself and realized that he has been successful in life. As a conclusive winding up statement the novel can be called a statement of life with its set of surprises and shocks. Life does accept the ‘joker’ and the lines from the album ‘The Addict’ endorse it:
“I make them laugh a lot
I make them accept me”