Instant Karma by Vinayak Varma
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And then there was this nun who lived in a creaky little hut on the summit of a holy mountain deep in the Sahyadris. The tall old mountain was narrow at the base, bulbous on top and ringed by thick forests and a couple of large, round foothills. The nun sat in the lotus position and rocked back and forth all day, chanting mantras and flailing about in spiritual ecstasy until she and the sun were both spent. She smoked a bong afterwards and slept as soundly as the infernal nightly creaking would allow.

 

The roof of the nun's hut was poorly thatched, its earthen floor was uneven, and its bamboo walls were creased with row upon row of red and black ants. A family of giant fruit bats hung from the rafters. The air inside the hut tasted of sandalwood, guano, camphor and piety. The ground tasted of biscuit crumbs and mud.

 

There was a shelf against one of the walls, and on it was a set of second-hand books on science and philosophy, a few Indrajal comics, a deck of tarot cards, an old issue of Stardust and some stationery. The nun owned no radio or tv or pc. The setup was properly simple, like the waiting room of a Shivaji Nagar dentist or a prison library.

 

All through the night, a heavy easterly wind tore at the hut, rattling its bones and carving into its flanks. And every day, between bouts of frenzied meditation, the nun would use sticks, ropes and clay to repair the previous night's damage as best as she could. But it was a losing battle, and it was soon apparent that she needed a few allies. So she prayed.

 

When her prayers to the Creator didn't pay off, the nun prayed to the Mother Goddess who tended to all life on the planet. The Mother was too busy to respond, so the nun prayed to the Lords of Weather who curated the seasons. They wouldn't listen either, and so it went, down, down, down the chain of command, and when all other bureaucratic channels had been depleted, the nun prayed to the demigod in charge of her own forest and, at long last, found results: a white-cheeked barbet fluttered into the clearing, landed on her shoulder and placed a tiny pebble in her ear. She took this to be a sign that her home would soon be fortified. Her tarot cards later confirmed this.

 

She awoke one morning not long after the coming of the bird, and saw, through her bedside window, three ragged figures emerging from the forest – two men and a woman. She readied a pot of tea and stepped out to greet them.

 

‘Hullo! This is my land, and you're trespassing. Who are you? What do you want? Why've you come here?’

 

The architect walking in front felt like he was personally being put on the spot and, not without some resentment, stepped forward and cleared his throat. Perhaps it's best to speak of the symptom rather than the cause, he thought, if I don't want to be misjudged again. ‘Stress, mostly. It ... it was time for a bit of a break.’

 

The Architect:
Kodhandaraman had a pain in the neck. He had been out catching some sun, as advised by his orthopedician, when he heard a terrific crash from downstairs. He ran into the kitchen with the last of his morning spliff scorching his fingertips, left palm pressed to spondilitic neck, and found the cleaning lady face down on the floor. She was surrounded by broken glass from the microwave oven, which had been knocked down in her attempt to grab onto something mid-fall. There was no blood, thank heavens.

 

It took close to an hour for the ambulance to wade to his house through the 100 Feet Road traffic. The woman had regained consciousness by then, but couldn't sit up straight. She wouldn't speak intelligibly for the next thirty-six hours.

 

‘It looks like there's been a struggle,’ said one emergency medic to the other, as they set down their stretcher by the kitchen doorway. ‘Maybe we should call the police first. What if this is a crime scene?’

 

Kodha couldn't believe what he was hearing. ‘There may be internal injuries, for all you know,’ he said. ‘She may have broken something. You need to take her to the OPD right away.’

 

‘How did she fall?’ asked the doubting nurse.

 

‘I told you already: she's not said anything to me yet. I don't know how it happened. I was up on the terrace when she fell.’

 

‘What do you do, sir?’

 

‘I'm an architect.’

 

‘No office today?’

 

‘I'm on sick leave.’

 

‘And what were you doing on the terrace?’

 

Kodha contemplated telling them about his vitamin D regimen, but decided against it for want of plausibility. He hated that their unwarranted suspicions were making him lie. ‘Exercise,’ he said. ‘Look, are you medical professionals or detectives? Please, let's go to the hospital. I'll answer all your questions in detail once we have this poor lady looked at by a doctor. I have an uncle at your hospital. Dr. Manickavasagam. Would you like me to call him first?’

 

The very senior Dr. Manickavasagam was the head of the neurology department and a respected trustee on the hospital's board. Mention of his name did the job. The nurse stopped arguing and they were on their way.

 

The doctor at the emergency ward asked all the same questions, and Kodha was once again forced to lie and speculate.

 

‘I don't know how she fell, okay? I was up on the terrace doing my daily calisthenics when I heard a noise and went down to find her sprawled on the floor. Maybe she slipped on the fridge water.’

 

‘Fridge water?’

 

’Yes. After defrosting.’

 

‘Explain.’

 

Kodha wondered at this medical obsession with mundane details. Why not just treat the woman and be done with it?

 

‘It's an old fridge. It has to be manually defrosted. There was thawed water all over the floor this morning. Saralamma usually mops it when she comes in. She may not have noticed the puddle today. Or so I assume.’

 

‘Hmm. Okay. Let me be honest with you, Mr. Iyer. My emergency staff has already explained all the relevant details to me, so this conversation is only a formality. Things don't seem right to me. And in such cases, we are required to perform certain due diligences before we process reports and so on.’

 

‘What are you trying to say, doctor?’

 

‘The only reason I'm not calling the police is because your uncle is a big shot at this hospital. I wouldn't give a damn about that kind of thing ordinarily, but I really don't have the time today to deal with all the back-and-forthing that's bound to take place if the administration gets involved. It's a day of accidents. There are many patients waiting their turn.’

 

‘Oh god. This is ridiculous. Look, I'm not going to pull any strings, okay? I promise not to involve my uncle in this. I only brought him up so we could get to the hospital in time. If your standard procedure needs the cops to be here, please go ahead and call them.’

 

‘I think I will, then. Best to follow protocol. One can never be too sure.’ ‘Fine. Go ahead. Just hurry it along.’

 

It was discovered, the following afternoon, that the cleaning woman had collapsed from a concussion inflicted by her alcoholic husband. By the time of this revelation, all aspects of Kodha's personal and professional lives, his daily routine and his social persona, had been julienned, garnished every which way and served up to an orgy of ravenous green and brown-uniformed personnel. Every applicable theory involving every popular aggression of the mind – from sexual deviance and psychosis to casteism – had been tossed around and dissected with the studied ignorance of a butcher in a surgical gown.

 

The rumours soon got to the architect's wife, his in-laws, his colleagues and even Dr. Manickavasagam, who had, to their mutual embarrassment, never been a close enough relative to be so casually invoked. The truth about the cleaning woman's abusive spouse only reached some of these ears, and Kodha's genial reputation was forever bruised. His marriage grew cold, his designs grew stiff, and his bosses grew distant. Polite society softly, gently pushed him out.

 

His mother, meanwhile, took to calling him twice every day, with the same absurd complaint: ‘You should have listened to me when I told you to buy that nice double-door fridge with the auto-defrost. Didn't I warn you this would happen? Didn't I? Never go for second-hand models. Mark my words.’

 

It was enough to drive any man to the hills.

 

*

 

‘Okay,’ said the nun, handing the architect a cup of tea. ‘You're welcome here. Feel free to sit down. Have you brought anything with you? Do you have any offerings for me?’

 

‘I have brought only my loneliness,’ said the architect.

 

‘Hand it over, mister,’ said the nun. And they all laughed.

 

But the nun wasn't joking. ‘I'm serious. Hand it over.’

 

‘Oh. Okay.’

 

‘How about you?’ the nun asked the carpenter, next in line. ‘How did you end up here?’

 

The carpenter responded with a great show of humility, ‘I discovered a new god last month, sister – one that lives within me, right here’ he said, tapping the V of hair that curled forth from his half-unbuttoned shirt. ‘I have come here to nurture him.’

 

‘Let's get this straight,’ said the nun. ‘I'm not your sister.’

 

The Carpenter:
The congregation might have forgiven Nallappan his philandering ways if, at the very least, he had a decent work ethic. He did, after all, ply the same craft as their blessed Eesho. But Nallappan was the laziest carpenter in all of Malappuram, and it was common knowledge that he had slept with the wife of every fellow tradesman in the market. The whole town hated him. The fact that he continued to get work in the current economy was increasingly seen by the local rationalists as a minor victory for atheism.

 

Nallappan's lowest point came during a game of blackjack on Easter night, the year Obama first visited India. Not only did Nallappan have to forfeit all his money to a damned communist, he also lost an ensuing bet that he placed, in the hope of some redemption, against his rival's contention that the new American president was, in fact, a Christian.

 

‘He is Muslim,’ said the carpenter, ‘and I can prove it! Let's go ask Shangu. He can tell you within seconds.’ Shangu, self-proclaimed Master of Google, managed the local internet cafe.

 

‘Wait, Nallappa. First tell us what you're putting up.’

 

‘Meaning?’

 

‘What are the stakes? Here’s my wager: if you win, I will return every naya-paisa that I just took from you. Okay?’

 

‘Agreed!’

 

‘But if I win, what will you give me?’

 

‘You won't win, my dear Chacko. My guarantee. You are fully, hundred and one percent wrong. Our American friend is a Muslim, through and through.’

 

‘Then you are a fool!’

 

‘I'm telling you again and again: his middle name is Husain!’

 

‘Be that as it may, Nallappa. Be that as it may. I may win or I may lose, but what are you willing to give up? That is what I want to know.’

 

Nallappan stood up and took a mighty swig of his toddy. ‘How about a dare? I'll do something totally crazy. Something that no one has ever done before. In our history. What say?’

 

‘Oho? What's that then?’

 

‘Want to hear it? Ready?’

 

‘Ready!’

 

‘If I lose this bet, I will hike all the way up Cholamala and back.’

 

‘But Nallappa, I myself have climbed Cholamala many times.’

 

‘Let me finish, my Chackoyay. I will climb Cholamala, like you, but! I will be carrying all my tools on my head.’

 

‘But I too have done that many times, Nallappa. How is that any diff...?’

 

‘Let me finish, Chacko. Let me finish. I will climb Cholamala, carrying all my tools. Without footwear!’

 

‘But Nallappa, any average Shabarimala pilgrim can beat that.’

 

‘Wait, Chackocha. Let me finish, no? I will climb Cholamala, carrying all my tools, and without footwear – in the nude!’

 

‘What?’

 

‘Not only will I do all of that, I will also personally go door-to-door and say sorry to all the men whose wives I have lain with. What do you say?’

 

‘Not possible!’

 

‘I'm telling you, no?’

 

‘Then I will place a second bet, Nallappa: that you don't have the balls to carry out such a thing. Not. A. Chance.’

 

‘Let's see. Let's see.’

 

For all his faults, Nallappan was a proud man who lived by his word, and when he duly lost the bet, he set out to do exactly what he promised. A week from the date of his defeat, he disrobed, packed his tools, swallowed a quarter bottle of rum and snuck out of his house at three in the morning without kissing his wife goodbye.

 

The time of my departure was never agreed upon, he reasoned, so I will go when it's dark and no one can see me. Nallappan is nobody's fool, he thought.

 

Swilling in self-congratulation, Nallappan was nearly out of the town and into the forest path when what seemed like God's own halo cut through the darkness and set his eyes afire. Was this the divine recompense that he had prayed for all week? Was this, indeed, a sign of the end times?

 

Light-blinded Nallappan, naked as a cherub, grew a glorious erection and knelt down to chant the Lord's Prayer.

 

‘Oh holy Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be...’

 

‘Nallappaaaa! Cooooeeeee!’

 

He looked up and squinted. It wasn't God's Grace after all. It was the work of the rascal Devil. Someone had switched on the flood lamp outside the hockey ground and pointed it straight at him.

 

‘Nallappaaa! Hahahaha!’

 

Nallappan shielded his eyes, ducked under the light and leaned over for a better look. A row of silhouettes looked down on him from the stands above. There were a hundred or more spectators in the gallery, and they clapped and hooted and yelled. A few flashes went off – photographs were being taken.

 

The carpenter crouched low and grabbed at his groin, his erection receding sadly into the thicket from whence it had arisen.

 

‘You bastard!’ he screamed. ‘You bloody bastard!’ He flung his toolset at his audience, turned and sprinted all the way back home.

 

The town awoke that day in high spirits. Word of Nallappan's thwarted hike had spread. Google-Master Shangu helped upload the photographic evidence to Facebook, and spawned a legend for the ages.

 

At midday, Father Xavier came over to counsel Nallappan's wife. Her husband had disappeared by then, along with his hammer, a framed wedding photo and a bag full of clothes.

 

‘Don't let this shake your faith, daughter. You may not understand what has transpired, but be assured that it is all the Lord's doing,’ said the priest, ‘and it is not our place to question Him.’

 

‘Oh, but I do understand,’ said Nallappan's wife. ‘This is exactly what I've been hoping for. My Easter prayer was to be free of that wicked man, and now he's gone. If anything, my faith is stronger than ever now.’

 

‘If only the same could be said of your husband,’ said a somewhat relieved Father Xavier, standing up to leave. ‘But we must thank God for small mercies.’


*

 

‘And what gift have you brought for me?’ asked the nun.

 

‘Defeat,’ said the carpenter. ‘I only carry defeat.’

 

The nun was getting tired of all this negativity, so she quickly turned to the journalist.

 

‘How about you, lady?’

 

The woman said nothing. The nun would never believe her, and she didn't want to have to lie.

 

‘Please,’ said the nun. ‘I don't discriminate or judge. You may speak your mind.’

 

‘Fine. Something happened. At my job.’

 

‘Yes?’

 

‘I was working for a news channel until last month.’

 

‘Okay. And what happened?’

 

‘I was.... Well.’

 

‘Yes?’

 

‘Axed.’

 

‘Oh?’


‘I was axed. But I survived. I survived.’

 

The journalist began to laugh. It was loud, hoarse and terribly unfunny. The architect and the carpenter shifted in their seats.

 

The Journalist:
As a single mother, Yamuna was forced to moonlight. She spent her mornings transcribing audio notes for a senior Hong Kong barrister who punctuated every phrase with a long dry cough that rattled her ears and itched her throat in sympathy. After lunch, she counselled for a suicide hotline that put her in a deep depression by the time her daughter returned from school. She hinged the two jobs with a short siesta and an episode of Dashavatar, her favourite daytime mytho-soap.

 

Yamuna had been raised by agnostic secularists who believed in celebrating the festivals and rituals of all the major religions with an equal mixture of fervour and disdain. Defeating all expectations, Yamuna emerged from her adolescence a right-wing Hindutva bhakt. She rarely spoke to her parents now, ever since they voted against the Saffron Party in the last Lok Sabha elections. She considered this betrayal a passive-aggressive attack on the legitimacy of her beliefs. She was intense like that.

 

On a Good Friday afternoon, annoyed at herself for being annoyed at having to work on this most Christian of holidays, Yamuna was relieved when her phone beeped to remind her that the weekly Dashavatar marathon was about to start. She really needed the break.

 

It had been a miserable month. The barrister had threatened to fire her after discovering a couple of spelling errors in one of her transcripts. She hated having to grovel and plead with her clients, and it always made her yearn for a simpler, cheaper life. In a rash moment afterwards, she wished that she had gone through with her abortion instead of listening to her ex and keeping the baby. That same evening, her daughter broke her arm while playing hockey. Yamuna was convinced that this was karma in action. After going to the clinic to bandage the girl's fracture, Yamuna drove to the Ganesha temple and broke a hundred conciliatory coconuts, sobbing all the while.

 

The hotline sessions, too, had been worse than normal, if such work could have a baseline for normalcy. Her callers were usually hysterical and in need of pacifying. This was hard enough. The most worrying cases, however, were the people who were calm to begin with. She had three such callers over the past week, and all three had thought through the whys and hows of their suicides in unnerving detail. One was about to hang herself, one was going to step in front of a train, and the third, worst of all, had already swallowed rat poison. They were calling not to be counselled and dissuaded, but simply to have some neutral party record their suicide notes. By the time Yamuna could ascertain their addresses and have medics sent over, two out of three had perished.

 

It had proven too much for her to take, and Yamuna began meditating during her spare time, to try and unlock her chakras, to somehow palliate the rawness in her soul.

 

The Good Friday chapter of Dashavatar was about Parashurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, who took arms against a sea of troubles and, unlike hapless Hamlet, gave rise to a lovely piece of prime real estate. The actor playing the demi-god was tall, sexy and upholstered with the latest hipster beard, his studio-financed pectorals glimmering and dancing as he tossed the fiery axe of Shiva into a CGI Arabian Sea. Overwhelmed by this glossy vision of creative violence, Yamuna sat up and addressed her tv set directly. ‘Oh Bhargava! What a wonder you are! You've birthed all of Kerala by throwing an axe at the sea! You've turned a futile, pathetic gesture into a mighty genesis – only a god can pull off such a thing! We mortals are so useless in comparison. We are completely useless. I surrender to you, Rama!’

 

So saying, Yamuna collapsed into padmasana and began to meditate. ‘Ommmmmm...’

 

She steadied her breathing. In her mind's eye, she formed the image of a parashu. ‘Ommmmmm...’

 

It was double-headed and sharp as dawn, with a long oaken haft, wide cheeks and blades carved with intricate Sanskrit inscriptions.

 

‘Ommmmmm...’

 

As the axe gained definition, Yamuna began to feel it course with an otherwordly power.

 

‘Ommmmmm...’

 

With this divine weapon, she thought, she could cut a path through all her problems.

 

‘Ommmmmm...’

 

And the mind-axe shivered.

 

‘Ommmmmm...’

 

She could sculpt a new life for herself.

 

‘Ommmmmm...’

 

And the mind-axe spun.

 

‘Ommmmmm...’

 

There would be peace. There would be money. There would be joy.

 

‘Ommmmmm...’

 

And it took flight, in search of a submerged paradise.

 

‘Ommmmmm...’

 

A loud ringing tore through the edges of her concentration.

 

‘Oh, bloody.’

 

She opened her eyes, let in the world and got up to answer the phone. It was her father. Yamuna sighed. ‘Yes, Appa? No, it's fine. Yes, I'm working. No, tell me. What? No, I don't need your old fridge. I've got a good one. Auto-defrost, yes.’

 

On the television, a live newscast had replaced Dashavatar. Assam was experiencing floods again, and a cub reporter was attempting to assess the damage from atop a bridge. Behind her, the Brahmaputra rushed and raged and scrabbled for more ground. ‘The exact figures are yet to come in, Rajdeep, but Oxfam is estimating that...’

 

The reporter screamed suddenly, and Yamuna ran back into the living room.

 

‘Appa, let me call you back.’

 

A few seconds of white noise, and the satellite feed was restored, the fallen camera was picked up and righted, and the fallen reporter climbed back into frame. She looked shaken to her marrow.

 

‘Lata? Are you okay?’ asked the studio anchor.

 

‘Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.’

 

‘You're still on air, Lata,’ the cameraman reminded her. ‘We're broadcasting live.’

 

‘What's going on there?’ asked the studio anchor.

 

‘I'm sorry,’ said the reporter. ‘I ... I don't understand ... It came at us so fast, Rajdeep. God, it nearly took my head with it. Rajdeep, I don't ... look...’

 

The girl pointed to her left, a few feet below the spot where she had been standing earlier. The camera focused on a huge mound of silt that seemed to have spontaneously risen from the floodwaters below.

 

Yamuna dropped her phone and stared at the screen. Embedded neatly in the centre of the mound was a large, gleaming axe.

 

*

 

The nun looked up at the sky and rubbed her forearms. Evening had somehow slunk up on them and brought a chill with it.

 

‘Does anyone have any alcohol?’ she asked. ‘I'd love a tot of rum right about now.’

 

‘So you got fired,’ said the carpenter, pulling a quarter of Khoday's out of his back pocket. The nun pounced on it. ‘Big deal. People get fired all the time.’

 

‘I didn't get fired,’ said the journalist. ‘I quit.’

 

‘But I thought you said you were ax...’

 

‘I was speaking literally. Never mind. It's complicated.’

 

‘Literally?’ asked the architect. ‘What do you mean, literally?’

 

‘You wouldn't understand.’

 

‘Then it doesn't matter,’ said the nun, already tipsy. ‘What matters is the nature of your burden, lady. Are you carrying anything with you?’

 

‘Fear,’ said the journalist. ‘I'm carrying fear.’

 

‘A little fear is a good thing,’ said the nun. ‘It'll keep you grounded. It'll keep you warm. So valuable in these times. I wouldn't dream of taking it away from you, no sir. A real commodity. Treasure it.’

 

‘No, please. Take it. I don't want it any more.’

 

‘That's okay. Keep it. I've got my fair share. Thanks for the offer, though. I really appreciate it.’

 

‘But I insist. That's why I climbed this bloody hill. I was told that you would take away my fear. I was told that...’

 

‘Huh?’ asked the nun, cupping her ears and leaning forward. ‘What's that? I'm sorry, I'm afraid I can't hear what you're saying. I've got something in my ear.’

 

‘This is stupid. You're being deliberately evasive.’

 

‘I think it might be a pebble,’ said the nun. ‘It's those damn barbets. They keep putting pebbles in people's ears. I think I may have gone a little deaf.’

 

‘Barbets, my ass. I know you can hear me perfectly well.’

 

‘Fine. I don't want your damn fear, okay? I don't want it! There's no space left in my larder. End of discussion.’

 

‘The main thing is,’ said the architect, sensing the need for a segue, ‘we're here. We've arrived. And there's a pattern to our narratives. It seems to me that we've all grown tired of the brutality of the world. We're all here to get away. Escape.’

 

‘Okay, yes,’ said the journalist. ‘To get away. You're right. But also to get rid of one's fears, no? What do I stand to gain from this otherwise?’

 

‘I agree,’ said the carpenter. ‘I fully agree. The world is brutal. I'm tired of it too. It's
good to escape.’

 

‘While I'm happy that you're all so wonderfully united in your motives,’ said the nun, ‘you were brought here, in truth, for a more practical reason.’

 

‘Oh? What's that?’ asked the three pilgrims.

 

‘You are here to build me a better home.’

 

‘Ah,’ said the three. ‘But we thought we were here for a little spiritual R&R. Some fresh air and light exercise. That sort of thing.’

 

‘Call it a working vacation,’ said the nun. ‘Your configuration is no accident: an architect to design, a carpenter to build and a journalist to document. Don't you see? You have been assembled here for a common goal. You are, dare I say it, a team.’

 

‘Hold on,’ said the carpenter. ‘Hold on, one second. So the architect gets to draw, and the journalist gets to write. That's nice. But I have to build? I have to do all the hard work? What the hell?’

 

‘To document?’ asked the journalist. ‘Of what use is documentation?’

 

‘For a brochure, maybe?’ said the nun, ignoring the carpenter. ‘Or a blog. I don't know. Keep a journal and take some photos, throw in some doodles. Something will come of it, I'm sure.’

 

‘Do you own a drafting table?’ asked the architect. ‘Gateway sheets? Rotring pens?’

 

‘No offense,’ said the carpenter, ‘but you seem very poor at delegating. I can design too, you know. I can take photographs. Let's not submit to these regressive feudal ideas, okay? Let's look beyond my stated profession. Open your mind.’

 

‘It's not your place or mine to question the divine plan,’ said the nun. ‘And that plan is for you to do exactly as you're told. And for me to be able to move out of that windblown pile of sticks you see over there. As soon as you three build me my perfect house.’

 

‘A perfect house,’ said the architect. ‘Is there such a thing?’

 

‘Yes, there is. Close your eyes and visualise it. A sweet little cottage. Small, quiet and self-sufficient. Simple and meditative. Honest, strong and private. With a sweet little portico, perhaps? And a courtyard. Is a courtyard possible, you think? A house with a story to tell, with some life in it. Maybe some ivy carpeting the facade, how romantic. And, built with proper materials. Stone, brick, cement, etcetera. Do you see it? Do you see?’

 

‘Will you be awarding some sort of a certificate or recommendation letter at the end of this project?’ asked the journalist. ‘Or a short testimonial? Are you on LinkedIn?’

 

‘Use your brain,’ said the nun. ‘I am a nun. I have no use for social networks.’

 

‘Seriously, though. I climbed all the way up here to do unpaid physical labour?’ asked the carpenter. ‘I ask you again: why can't the rest of you pitch in?’

 

The wind picked up, creaking bamboo and ruffling thatch. It howled through the rafters and raked through the mud. The whole hut trembled, exhaling a scurry of frightened bats.

 

‘No more questions,’ said the nun. ‘Time to work. Chop, chop.’

 

*


Vinayak Varma makes stories and art that have appeared in Out of Print, plays harmonica, and lives in constant fear of those who wear neckties for a living.