By evening, we had reached Revaram’s village, Bichua. Bichua meant the village of Scorpions.
Revaram’s cart was ready as usual. Before sunset, we reached Nagbaba's village. This time we had not forgotten to bring some ration, and vegetables for our dinner. Nagbaba was sitting outside.
With winter at its peak, evenings were short and calmer as the birds settled earlier. Nagbaba had got some cots made of wood and handmade ropes. He was also getting a few machaans made as wood was available in plenty. I loved machaans – they were almost ten feet high and had floor of wooden planks with a roof of leaves above.
I asked him, “Why are you getting this made?”
He answered, “They are required in winters. They will be warmer. There are many more large animals around; just in case we need them.” He replied.
I informed him about Tulsi and Muniya. Then added, “But city is not the place for them – they belong here.” He nodded.
We settled around a fire to fight the chill. Hot tea was served by Lakshmi. She was eagerly waiting to see if my bag had the promised books.
I went inside the hut with my bag, and gave her the bag to keep. She opened it and took out seven books. Four were Hindi printed modern versions of the books that Nagbaba had. The three others were dictionaries- Sanskrit to Hindi, Awadhi to Hindi and Maithili to Hindi.
I explained to her how these dictionaries were to be used. Her first task was to get familiar with the dictionaries. Then we would get down to translation of hand written books in his vault.
I knew I was expecting too much from a child. But I had faith: that in urge to do something for Nagbaba, she will learn and overcome any daunting task. I told her to ask me at each hurdle she faced, and not to try without understanding.
Then I came out of the hut. Others were wondering what books had been exchanged.
“How did things go with Raja Saheb?” I asked.
“He wanted to meet us tomorrow” said Nagbaba “We will meet at the temple at the edge of the forest. He is not willing to come here as he is insecure.”
I said, “Probably he also wants to showcase our meeting to others.”
Nagbaba continued, “I know. But I am scared of one thing. His presence makes my blood boil. I will need all the willpower of a saint to hear him out.”
I realized that Nagbaba had changed. He was willing to go out, overcome his nature and explore. 'Was it the Vitamin A episode?', I wondered.
It was a change I could feel with many folks. The simple cure of night blindness, the realization that deforestation and water channel destruction was their misery’s main cause, had awakened many minds
They were a bit desperate community – they grabbed any hope with both hands. I had to keep my querying mind in control and tongue firmly in order.
I asked Nagbaba, “What does Raja Saheb want from you? Did anyone figure it out?”
Nagbaba said, “He is willing to drop his age old claim on our village lands. He says he wants our friendship and we should think over his suggestions.”
Tilak smiled and said, “How can he leave what he doesn't have and can't even take?”
While we were lost in our discussion, Nagbaba went inside and brought tea. We laid the charpoy and settled down in our beds in the open compound.
“What are his new suggestions? It’s their new wish though softly put.” I said. I was eager to know.
Nagbaba said, “They seem of little meaning to us. As I had told you, the Sardar's trucks use a path going into the forests. The nearest mining point is roughly twenty kilometers from here. The trucks ply between that place to Hoshangabad, carrying wood and mud. Raja says that with our cooperation, he wants to stop these operations as they are cutting more trees than permitted and even carrying away twice the truckload of soil permitted.”
I said, “If the area has good deposits of iron ores, then Sardars are making a lot of money; enough to finish off everyone against them in this region. But stopping them would mean interference in the government contract work. It will bring police action. Then Raja won’t be seen anywhere.”
Nagbaba said, “Bhaiya, if we want, then Police action or Sardars' actions are useless. We won’t fight; we will just make their trucks useless with punctures, and make it difficult to leave the truck to repair here.”
By now, many other villagers had also gathered. There was a resolute expression on everyone's face. Nagbaba had already consulted them about it.
I needed a break before attempting to challenge their direction. I asked for a coffee, a demand which was met with loud laughter. “Where will you get coffee here? Looks like something big is going to come out of your mouth.” Sooraj said.
I opened my bag and gave them a bottle of instant coffee powder. The tribals had not tasted coffee, so everyone was eager to wait for it. Lakshmi got instructions from me on how to make coffee. There was a wide grin on her face, not believing anything tasteful could be made from that powder. Sooraj gave her a few large plastic glasses, in place of mugs. We carried an inventory in the Safari for road trips.
The anticipation of coffee diverted everyone's mind while I had a long thought. I had decided to discuss only with Nagbaba alone. I went to him and told him so.
The coffee came; all others took it with almost four spoons of sugar as I watched at their inability to find anything tasteful with it. Nonetheless, I enjoyed coffee in the wild.
After the coffee, the villagers dispersed. I told others to roam around while I needed to discuss something alone with Nagbaba. Accompanied by his dogs, he took me to a barren land just across the path. I called Lakshmi also. We lit a fire there and sat on wooden stumps. This particular spot was going to become an important place in our journey.
I said, “Baba, first and foremost, I am wondering how Raja is saying things that we discussed last time. It cannot be his original thought." Then I told him about Dixit's episode. Though it was difficult to find the links and point a finger anywhere, I was the common element in both instances. Though it did no harm to us, but we agreed that there was a possibility of some insider broadcasting it. Due precaution had to be taken henceforth.
Then we moved to the current topic. I said, “I think that Raja and whosoever is behind him, has thought of numerous possible outcomes, and how it will benefit them more. But I will take the extreme cases."
On the ground next to the fire, I drew a 2x2 matrix. I was after all a management graduate too. On vertical side, I wrote 'Dau' and 'Sardar'. I explained to him. We assumed that Raja was just a face for one of these. On the horizontal side, I wrote 'You win', and 'You lose'.
Then I said, “In my view, you win is a situation where you make many enemies. The Sardars will use it to make you fight more and create more tension. Ultimately, you will be known as unreasonable violent folks; even good intentioned persons and officials will look the other way. More deforestation and mining theft will get easier.”
I continued, “You lose means all the tactics in your hand are exhausted. Sardars have no more reason to be wary of you folks. In both cases, if Sardars are behind Raja, they will find a new normal, more paying than now. With an insider like Raja planted here, most likely outcome will be your defeat.”
“If Dau is behind Raja, they will not lose anything if you lose. But if you win, or there are any of the numerous other possibilities, then they will aim to be a player here somehow. They may even cut deals with Sardars. My point is their objectives can never match yours; rather there is a basic contradiction in what you desire in life and what they do. There can be no deal with this Raja.”
Nagbaba said, “So you say that taking any action as you are thinking, with or without Raja, is not going to be good for us. Then what do we do?”
Then I explained in his parlance, “See, one should ride a tiger only when one knows how to control it.”
Now he understood. I said, “You need a lot more strings to control this beast. Worst of all, the weakest among your folks will be the first to ruin your plan. A lot of strength needs to be added there.”
I also added after some thought, “And there is no permanency even if you win. It will be a temporary relief that may last for a few years. The resources that seem to be all around will draw new exploiters.”
I added, “Someone has chosen this accident to start sending Raja for fingering you, or forging some relationship. It seems a childish threat but had it been someone else in your place, they would have got a hold.”
While we discussed, Nagbaba sent out a message for someone to send Mahua from the village.
Something else worried him. He asked, “Bhaiya, does anyone think we are with Sardars?” It was quite a valid point. I also thought about it.
I said, “Looks natural as Sardars don’t have any issues here with you. Why I didn’t think about it? They may be linking me too. If that was the case, Dau would be wondering about our trips here. When you sent Tulsi with us, it might have confirmed their suspicion.”
Then I reversed my words, “Let’s say that if Sardars were after us, then we have Sardars worried about our trips here and thinking we come here on behalf of Dau.”
Leaving Nagbaba to his thoughts, I started worrying about this new problem. We walked back to his hut, where Mahua was ready to be served.
I had decided. I said to my team, “When we meet Dau Patel, I will make it clear to them that we have no standing in these matters. We want to peacefully go our way but we need to be cleared in the case also.”
Sooraj broke his silence in trying to iron out all details, “Bhaiya, what if Dau want us to shut Pipariya project or they want a big control on it?”
I said, “As I said, we exit. We will close down in a manner that doesn't cause loss to us. I will discuss details with Prakash before meeting Dau.”
There was a long silence. It was not gloomy but a few minutes of introspection. They understood I was also letting go of my dream project and a lot of sweat.
I asked Nagbaba, “Is it wise to go to Dau's village without any safety?”
But instead of answering, Nagbaba asked, “Why have you decide to quit?”
I replied, “Nagbaba, it is not about being scared of him. But look at Dau or Sardars or Raja Saheb or the police officers who are with them or even the politicians with Sardars or Dau. Their entire clans live by exploiting. Now look at me or Sooraj. We have grown up believing in simple lives, where we do something, earn and enjoy what we do. We are not groomed to exploit or commit crimes or avoid taxes. My father and mother are middle class old folks; they cannot fight alongside me; nor can my fiancée or her parents or Sooraj’s family. We even avoid police Thanas and courts. We cannot go on like this. And how many are we – four of us and what finances we have? With one safari and one revolver, we cannot take on a full platoon of goons. And why should we? It is not our job. If everything is rotten, let it be.”
There was something more running in my head. I said, “Regarding Tulsi's death, the fact is that we won't get justice. The men who attacked us have gone beyond trace and we will never know for sure who sponsored it. Even if we did, Sardars or Dau Patel, are well beyond reach in this case. If we try, then Tulsi's wife and kid may also be troubled, as if the current suffering is not enough. Let us dump the justice for preserving more lives. I have no more hope from this system.”
I continued, “Nagbaba, I think you also should be selfish. All you should think of is to avoid mining and felling of trees that affects fresh water and forests around your village. Close your eyes to what happens beyond it.”
We sat speechless for some time, then Nagbaba said, “Bhaiya, I have spoken to the witnesses for your case. They will come when needed but tribals are very doubtful of police and want to stay clear as much as possible.”
The wine of Mahua was taking hold. It was still early in the night – it was not even 8 pm. In the utter dark around and the freshness of forest breeze, a lot of pent up emotions found a way to flow.
I requested Nagbaba to see if some Chicken could be found in the village. Lakshmi replied from behind that someone in the village had caught a wild kadaknath yesterday. I looked at Shafiq and Sooraj, as both of them fancied it. I could feel their excitement. I told her to bring and roast here. She disappeared with a lantern and a stick.
Tilak asked me, “Bhaiya, when all this is done and over, I know you won’t come back. But don’t forget us. Do call me once – I also want to see the world.”
I put an arm around him and became emotional, “Tilak, I cannot forget anyone of you. I will still continue to advise Nagbaba to rebuild the village economy. You have been with me like no one ever will be. All these years, I made friends – in offices, in colleges, in hostel and I banked upon all of it but all that was so far away in times of need. Look at that Thakur. You all are real for me –nothing else is. I will be there for you”
It was straight from my heart. I wished that my parents, Tulsi's wife and Muniya could hear that too.
Such a statement made everyone emotional. The silence was broken when Lakshmi brought not one but two kadaknaths.
Shafiq took upon himself the duty of preparing them, since he was not drinking. They were quickly cleaned and put up for roasting in the fire next to us.
I told Tilak, “You also have not earned for months now, due to all these issues. How long can it go on like this? We need to get back to track.”
Tilak did not respond. He looked away silently, trying to hide his face from us. I signaled to Sooraj, who signaled back that Tilak be left alone. He seemed to be in tears. I realized he had drunk too much as he was not accustomed to Mahua and treated it as a very light wine. And he had been getting an unlimited supply after very long last.
But I still asked, “What happened, Tilak? You don’t feel bad because our journey will come to an end. It had to get over one day- the better the sooner.”
Tilak wiped his eyes with his shirt on the forearm. Then he said, “No Bhaiya, I will be happy if these troubles get over. I don’t know how I will go back to my old ways. All these days for last three months, I had started living again for solving your troubles.”
After a pause he added, “There is no old track remaining for me to put the life back on it.” None of us, probably except Shafiq, understood the depth of this sad statement. But today we had time and calmness of mind to know more.
The scent of roasted birds had made us very hungry. Without asking, Lakshmi had also brought some large brinjals and started roasting them. The scent of brinjal bharta being made was adding to expectations.
Tilak started humming a Hindi song; quite oblivious to our presence. His voice was deep and clear. And the humming of the song invited folks from neighboring huts. Almost fifteen men and women gathered around the fire.
I was aware that we didn’t have enough to invite them for dinner, and that made us very uneasy. I signaled Sooraj to go with a tribal and bring more Mahua – normally it was not sold but I had told Sooraj to always pay for what we get here.
I asked the gathered men and women for dinner but they had already eaten. In this cold, the drink was always welcome by men and women alike. But what had brought them here was the humming by a city folk – they loved music.
It was the last drunk party I enjoyed in the forest. Today, Tilak is no more- and with him gone, there was never such a party again.
A few minutes of silence later, Tilak started his song. It was an old popular movie song : ‘Dil aisa kisi ne mera toda, Barbadi ki taraf aisa moda …..Ek bhale manush ko, Amanush bana ke chodaa…’
As he sang, his intensity of emotions took hold of all of us. There were many tribals who could not understand such pure Hindi, but the purity of hurt had traveled to each one’s heart. Tilak ended with a smile and then some tears rolling down which he quickly wiped.
There was a stunned silence. One elder man thanked him on behalf of those gathered, “No one has sung better in our villages. We will call you to represent our village I tribal competitions.”
As we started our dinner, the gathering remained settled. They were not leaving till the Mahua supply ran out. Most of them had made themselves comfortable on the ground and looked good to sleep there itself.
I told Tilak, “You sing that song as if it was made for you. What broke your heart and made you a Amanush (an inhuman being)? “
He said, “Bhaiya, I wish I could point a finger to something. Things would have been easier to handle.”
I knew that from day one I had met Tilak. He was a middle aged man almost graying, with no mention of any type of family except Shafiq. He was a fearless person, ready to get into a gun fire and hence he seldom had any fights.
Yet he had a lot of loyal friends, and the sight of a weak person melted him and he immediately was willing to stand with the weak person. Hence he had remained glued to me. Though initially he had claimed a price of his security work, I soon realized money held no meaning for him. He soon forgot about payments, as he settled down. All he wanted was something to fill a void that ate him.
Despite all his brazenness, there was different kind of humanness about him – I had not seen that in my corporate and student life. He could hold a bargaining conversation with a beggar and a police superintendent with equal ease. What he never touched upon was his own life.
All three of us knew about his loss in the Bhopal Gas tragedy. But he never got to talk about it. Today I was going to ask him about it. I asked, “Then what happened? How old would your children be now?”
He said, “My son would have been twenty five and daughter twenty three.” Then he started, “My father worked as a laborer in a cardboard factory and my mother used to stitch at home. They used to urge me to study a lot but my mind was in movies. I got admitted into graduate college but left after a year. I used to lie so much to my parents.” He smiled as he said that.
“My father got me a job in a nearby cinema theatre as a torch man. My work was to show the seats to people with my torch. It was a 12 to 12 job. I could watch all new movies free of cost. But I used to blow away all the money that I got from the theatre. So my parents got me married at twenty.”
“Within four years of marriage, we had two kids. My two room home was full of activity. My mother and wife opened a small shop in front of the house to meet added expenses. Before going to the theatre, every morning I would buy stock for the shop. Then return at one a.m. in the night and prepare to leave early in the morning. I had completely changed from an aimless person to one devoted to the family.”
“Then on December 3rd, when I was returning from the theatre on my bicycle, I saw white vapors everywhere coming towards me. I rushed towards my home which was two kilometers away but the eyes burnt and I could not breathe easily. There were hundreds of people running in many directions, barely able to see, and some were falling off.”
“After going on for some ten minutes, I could not keep my eyes open. I think I was very near to the home. I could barely breathe and each breath caused burning inside my chest. After a few more minutes, the fear of death took hold of me and I ran back on my bicycle. Within fifteen minutes or so of cycling, the white fog had reduced but my eyes and chest burnt. I went past many people, some dying and some wailing for help but I did not stop.”
“I did not realize that someone had made a small boy sit on my bicycle carrier. I rode for another fifteen minutes, found some water in a drain and we just lay there till the morning.”
“In the morning, I gathered the strength to go back. When I got back to the road, the sight was horrible. The white vapor had gone. There were bodies everywhere. The trees on both sides had been stripped of leaves and looked burnt. There were animal bodies that had swollen. There were mostly dead people. The alive ones and an ambulance staff were piling up bodies in a truck, taking them to Hamidia Government Hospital. I asked a few folks what had happened but no one knew for sure.”
“One man said that thousands of Cooking gas cylinders had burst. Another man said that gas leaked from a nearby factory of Union Carbide. My heart sank as my house was near to that factory. I rushed to my house –there were bodies everywhere. I prayed to God for a miracle.”
“When I reached my home, I found a few neighbors wailing. They had run away in the night but had come back now and found a few of their relatives dead. I asked one neighbor about my family. He said that they had run in the opposite direction- they waited for a while for you to come and then fled.”
“I rode back with the boy to search for my family on the roads. Then went to the nearest big Hospital – there were dead bodies in thousands piled up. After searching amongst the living present there, I went to the pile of dead and searched for many hours. They were laid in batches of trucks depending on where they had been picked up from.”
“I spotted my mother’s body in a row of bodies. I knew all was lost then. I searched in that group and found all of them – their eyes were swollen and stared at me. I lost the sense of the world and sat there for hours silent. The municipal trucks took the bodies and buried them in piles.”
“The boy sat with me – he became silent and understood the fate of his family. We did not cry. After the dark on that day, I got up and started helping the wailing relatives and those still alive. Most of the living ones I saw had lost their eyes, and they could only crawl breathlessly – they didn’t have lungs left to even stand up. I thanked God for having mercy on my family.”
“I went back home after many days. It was locked and the colony looked like a graveyard. No home had been spared of deaths and the living ones were in a worse state. I could not bear the sight of the rooms. I felt guilty for not being there. At times I still think I could have ridden the cycle for ten more minutes and might have found them. I knew they would have been waiting for me before bolting out. That is my guilt and crime. The faces of my children and wife and parents were staring at me when I found them. It is my only memory left. I immediately left my home and it has been locked since. I have never lived after that but ran from one day to another, trying to find some meaning.”
I explained to Nagbaba and others what had happened. The tribals had not heard of the Bhopal Gas tragedy in 1984. I had always felt that the real tragedy that unfolded was months after the gas had passed. More humans were killed by the government apathy and politics than by the Gas.
All were silent. Sooraj asked, “And what happened to the boy who came with you?” Tilak looked at Shafiq and said, “Since that day this fellow has lived with me. We never found his family again and they were counted as dead and buried. But after a few months, one of his relatives spotted him, and contacted me. We went over to their place but the relatives were reluctant to take him in. They had also suffered badly in the Gas tragedy and had no lung power to work anymore. Sensing this, I brought him back and he lived with me. I never interfered with his religion – I thought God had left him to my care.”
“Shafiq was a very silent kid – perhaps silenced by the site of that night. But he had some temper. I sent him to school but as he grew up, his fights with other kids became dangerous so the teachers pushed him out after tenth standard.”
“Because of him, I got bigger collection jobs. Everyone knew I could not harm an innocent but then the fear of Shafiq ran through their minds. Every politician wants to use Shafiq but I have taken a promise from him that he will not leave my side and work for anyone till I live. I am the only one he listens to.”
All those who had gathered had heard and absorbed the words. Probably before that evening, most of them had considered Tilak and Shafiq as strange folks not to be too friendly with. Henceforth it was immaterial how they odd they seemed to tribals- they had been seen as fellow humans tonight.
I learnt much about human communication that day – that honesty about one's own life can break any barriers.
Mahua had made our bodies warm on a very cold night. Comfortably placed on the cot made of jute ropes and covered by a handmade rug, we slept in a sad frame of mind.
We sat facing the sea near Haji Ali. I had nothing to say but just absorb that it was all over.
“Thank God you are back,” Tara said as she held my hand and examined the marks. “At one point, I thought I had lost you, and you will never be with me.”
I was still silent, but I was not calm. I still seemed lost. But I said to her, “I don’t want to be lost again. We will have a different life.” There were tears in my eyes.
I woke up in tears. It was absolutely dark in the village. The fire had gone out. It was five am – a good omen to have seen such a dream before dawn. There was a belief that such dreams came true. I kept lying awake thinking about that dream.
Life was very different just four months back. Laying in bed, I wondered if it was wrong to have dreamt of a business like this? My thoughts went over everything that had happened. I had made a mistake. And I was right in trying to make a swift exit from this situation.
Lost in my thoughts, I didn't notice that Nagbaba had woken up and made tea, “Bhaiya, have tea.” There was a lot of affection in his voice.
I asked, “Why did you get up so early?” He sat down near my bed, on the ground. We talked in low voice. He said, “You seem worried about something, else you sleep well.”
I said, “No not worried. I had a dream about going back to old life.”
But he felt troubled due to something else. He spoke out, “Bhaiya, Dau Patel is not an easy man to handle. We didn't discuss that yesterday though you had asked about safety. I have heard he has power enough to look in someone’s eyes and read the mind. I cannot let you go without having full satisfaction about your safety.”
I told Nagbaba about our meeting with Agarwal. I felt confident of persuading Dau, knowing well that persuasion is a bad term amongst unequal.
Nagbaba continued to speak his mind, “You cannot go and meet Dau without a security. He may not let you go unless he gets what he desires.” But I was not sure. I said, “Baba, many folks would know that I went inside his palace. He won't leave any reason for police to extract anything out of him.”
Nagbaba said, “You forget about the road accident. There are many other ways of harming someone. Dau is a cunning mind, his two brothers are cruel and hot tempered and his son is the educated one who handles money. Though most folks know they have ordered many murders, they have never been proven guilty. In a case two years back, one of his brother was included in the charge sheet by a hostile police officer. It is said that Dau bought the judge and the witnesses for seventy five lacs. Subsequently the police officer was transferred as the Sardars didn’t like this failure. I am telling you all this because you are not aware of what these guys are made of.”
I smiled at Nagbaba, “Looks like you keep a lot of information even outside the forest.” The first rays of sun filtered over the mountains in east.
I asked, “How should I ensure security?” Nagbaba said, “When we meet Raja today, you come along. I will request him to assure your safety when you meet Dau. Ask the Raja to stay here or in the roadside tribal village till you return.”
I asked, “But to accept that he has to be linked to Dau?” Nagbaba explained, “If he is not linked, he won’t even agree to risk his life. Otherwise, for some lure or purpose, he will do it, if he gets a nod from Dau. Then Raja’s security is a matter of honor for Dau. Raja may be weak and foolish, but the scattered Rajput clan still has the power to harm anyone. Dau won’t upset them or give them a reason to unite. He will be then wiped off by Sardars or holed up in just small territory. Dau will not risk it for a person like you who is going to exit. Remember this in all your conversations with Dau.”
I sighed. Though it sounded strange, it was not. I had read about mafias and their guarantees. More strange was that it was coming from Nagbaba.
“And what will you do if Dau harms me or plots an accident.” I asked. Nagbaba was cold, “We will perform our duty believing it as God's wish. Raja Saheb will be sent deep inside forests and shot with a bow and arrows. But don’t worry, that will not happen as long as Raja Saheb is here.’
I finished my tea – I had grown fond of the village tea. While others slept till seven, I lay in bed, again lost in my thoughts about the coming day and the possibilities.