The hospital balcony faced towards the west. There were only a couple of people in the evening there but by night it would get full with the relatives of patients in General Ward sleeping there. Most of them came from other nearby towns and villages, and saved on very expense they could.
The helper left my wheelchair next to the balcony grill. One could see the roads cross each other at a distance and then a small ground with trees, and the sun setting over them. There were children playing cricket in the ground, and some were cycling around it. Not much had changed over years.
I had spent most of my schooling time in Bhopal. Every day was a cycling adventure to school and back. We had a small government house allotted to my father. My father had studied a lot, and then in search of a stable job, had migrated from North India and settled down for a state government job in Bhopal.
Here he met my mother, whose family had migrated from a village near Hoshangabad. My mother’s family was extremely poor but somehow she had self educated herself to complete a graduation. Both had modest dreams of owning a house and living a secured life, but had taken care to get me admitted to one of the better English schools. It had cost them a lot of money as donation.
Aware of my family’s modest income, I remembered how I used to save every penny, and so I had decided to cycle to school very early when I was barely twelve, while majority of kids still used to take buses. But unknown to my parents - cycling gave me a free spirit – I would venture off to see newer paths, or discover new playgrounds.
The cycle allowed me to paddle daily all the way to a distant government run swimming pool. It was around eight kilometers from my home. Typically, swimming pools were then used mostly by elite officials and their kids but there was no class barrier. Most other kids in my community would not go to the pool as it was too far or cost them too much to spend on petrol gas. A few had a class barrier in their minds and didn’t want to go there on a modest motor bike.
But the swimming pool and the elite crowd there gave me another dream – an aspiration to do better than where my parents had reached; though they were quite unaware of the churn in my mind. I had noticed that most of the folks at the swimming pool were very well educated, had good manners and discussed things that were above my imagination like traveling to a foreign place or a great novel. That made me join the British Library, another five kilometers from the Swimming pool. My cycle was taking me to places.
The British Library, right in the centre of the city then, had the most amazing collection of books, all in English. One was not charged for sitting there and reading but a modest fee was required for taking one book home. The Library increased my knowledge and hunger to find more. Those days, the only television channel was a government run news factory, mostly focusing on issues that didn’t bother me.
Someone in the library also mentioned a nearby Russian library to me. It was run by Communists and had very good Russian books translated in English. It took some time to adapt to their style but I realized that these books were priceless – they opened the joy of Mathematics and Sciences to me. Now I needed more time out of home.
Now my parents started seeing fringes of my mind. They were happy but didn’t think it was going to take me too far. To convince them to let me spend more and more time outside home, I had to bring them results in my school and public tests. So it was around fifteen years of age when I first took schooling seriously.
The results followed immediately. I started doing well but the breakthrough happened when I was awarded the National scholarship after three rounds of tests. My father never believed that I would get past the interview round without an influence and he did not have any higher level contacts. Just after the interview, he had prepared me for the result, “It’s all fixed up. Don’t worry if they don’t give you the scholarship. You truly deserve it.”
But I never got a chance to think as he did. More than that, one of the three interviewers put his arm around me and told me that I should think about IITs. That moment my dream changed from joining a local college to joining an IIT.
So many times it happens in life that an ordinary stranger, who spends just a few moments with you, has the capacity to completely move your thoughts in one direction.
And so my cycle took me to IIT Kanpur. Here, I realized, it was an entire set of competitors who had worked even harder with their cycles. Some were brilliant and focused with their next goals while many had traveled the path like me, discovering the next goal from others. In those four years, I completely broke free from the socio-economic thoughts that had been around me. There was no longer any need or compulsion to accept things as they were. It was not quite as my parents wanted me to see.
Yet thoughts are one things, practicality is another. My father had retired and instead of trying for a higher education, I accepted a job in a government Oil company. The political mafia driven sector itself meant black money those days. So everyone in my family and their friends was quite elated.
Within a short time, I realized that working here meant looking the other way at adulteration, or filling tanks. There was limited scope for using my education. By now I had saved enough for an MBA in India, and joined an IIM.
The two years at Lucknow flew past. Somehow, more educated I got, more uneasy I became. The government Oil company experience had shaken the confidence in application of my education.
Soon I was in US, earning well for a starter, and thinking about dollar conversion rates. But every time I came back to India and visited my parents and roamed around the country, I thought that this was the land of opportunity. Soon, I was back in Mumbai with a job in Investment Management.
Mumbai, for all its filth and congestion, had an air of dreams. Here, in a shared cab arrangement, I found my love, Tara. Soon the cab was replaced by a bike, as it was a more enjoyable ride. Both of us had to go to Bandra from Andheri, but we made it quite a long ride every day, stopping by seaside while returning.
Tara was very different from me. While I had no experience with anything stylish, she was always colorful and artistic though frugal. But while I had dreams of more colorful challenges in my career, she was very content with her repetitive job. She was a replica of her parents’ thoughts; while I was far different from what my parents could imagine.
She had simple dreams, wanted to do a job all her life and her dreams stretched till the limit of buying an apartment in Mumbai. But in my companionship, she had started preparing for more education.
Though I had gathered a lot of knowledge as I saw then, I had lacked a sense of danger. She being a girl in India had felt it at each step right from childhood. We were so different, though similar in upbringing and cultural background. Oblivious of all these matters, we were blissfully lost in our world and future plans.
On the other hand, I had been working on a plan to start an agriculture venture. It would use all my experience and energy to help the farmers and consumers by reducing their dependence on middlemen. The plan was simple to begin with – set up a retail trading operations that dealt in farm commodities, then set up storages and temperature controlled ones to gain margins extracted by the middlemen, and then tie up with farmers for direct supply.
I wanted to use technology for very tightly controlled operations and information, and banking system to finance the farmers who directly sold to us. Being in investment management, I saw that even a small success here would bring larger partners to help us expand. The only missing piece in the plan was the first location.
When I had announced the plan of quitting my job and start a venture in rural supply chain, she had freaked out. But slowly she gave in as she saw that my plan had taken months of preparation- my own investment experience on the job, studying the storage inefficiencies in the system, talking to bankers, some friends who would also invest in the project and many experts. Finally, the dream of success and whatever it meant won her over.
It took many more months before I zeroed in on Pipariya. First I went to Nasik. It was the hub of vegetables and many green produce. It was close to Mumbai for retail trade, but I quickly realized everything was owned and controlled by politicians in Nasik, from warehouses to cold storages. Being a non local there, it was difficult for me to deal with them.
Then I went to Aligarh, the hub of potatoes. It looked a more competitive market and a less controlled one, and also closer to New Delhi for our trade. After a couple of months of effort, the requisite government permissions didn’t come. It was going to be that way there- one could do anything but without documents.
Finally, once at home, my mother suggested talking to Raju Mama, her distant cousin from her village, as he was a big farmer in Pipariya (as she believed it). I traveled around the place; I realized it was going to be easier and more profitable to set up the project in Pipariya. And we could set up the retail trade in Bhopal, a large enough city.
I left Mumbai in early 2007 and set up retail trading outlets in Bhopal. The cash flow started with minor profits. Barely a couple of months later, I got a call from Prakash. He was an Agriculture Graduate, working in Mumbai and had heard about my plan from a common friend. Immediately after our conversation, he left his job and took the train to Bhopal. Soon he negotiated an arrangement to start a cold storage in Pipariya.
Prakash was a real asset- he worked tirelessly and believed that any obstacle could be overcome. Within three months, the storage had started working and increased my work load. Prakash was a technical person, while I had to talk to Bankers, Insurers and any field Agent interested in our work.
Soon I got a call from Aditya. Aditya was my age, around 32 years, similar in background and had been working as a project manager in Delhi. He wanted to be an entrepreneur but in a structured role and without much risks. Soon he joined to take over my retail trading load.
It had been three months since Aditya had joined. Things had been smooth between three of us but there had been occasional friction. The retail trading operation had slid in performance, and now losses along with added salaries were going out of Company’s cash. I felt that Aditya was too tightly controlling the operations without having an understanding of business, while Prakash felt that Aditya was not marketing well.
At the same time, both Aditya and I felt that Prakash had raced too far and arranged a large storage capacity, and was now forcing upon the retail more daily trading supply from Pipariya to reduce his per unit costs.
To spice up matters, Dau had called for a meeting to know what was going on in the storage facility. I had been respectful. Dau wanted to invest and own a significant part but was denied. Then he put forward the condition of employing folks recommended by him, to which I had conditionally approved. Prakash was fine with it.
In between, my Pipariya based Raju Mama used to warn me about some rumors related to the Pipariya operations. But they were dismissed as vague complaints by Prakash. It created a useless tussle between them.
Despite these minor hiccups, the scenario was looking lucrative once we sold the bulk produce stored for longer term in the cold storage- all bank financed and insured. And this had kept all of us motivated and together, till the day I was attacked.
This incident had also shaken Tara. Also, there was a deep seated aversion to Police in her mind, something common in most homes. The prospect of any news reaching her family made her worried. Along with that, I didn’t know what dangers lurked around me. She wanted to see me but I had asked her not to visit me for a while till it is sorted out. This time she had surprised me with her maturity. She didn’t want me to even think of quitting in panic. I understood that she was going to stand by me till I came out of this.
I had been deeply lost in these reminiscences, when a tap on my shoulder brought me back. It was my mother. The sun had set long back. She said, “Someone has come to meet you.”
Anticipating who it was, I started rolling back my thoughts.