The meeting with Raja Saheb was fixed at 10 a.m. The place was the temple at the edge of the forests.
We arrived there one hour before – the edge of the forest was just ten kilometers on road from Revaram's hut. Nagbaba and four of us went by Safari on this route.
Nagbaba had asked many more men to be there. They had walked through the jungle paths and reached there. They were hidden in the nearby grass and large trees, waiting for our call.
Nagbaba was meeting the temple priest after a long while. The priest was uneasy about the visit of Raja. The temple had been getting donations from Sardars which gave him a good flow of funds, in an otherwise remote temple. He knew that the Sardars would be eager to know what was going on but it was too risky to meddle today. Without our knowledge, he quietly slipped away till the meeting got over.
The presence of so many invisible tribals looked unnecessary to me. But that feeling quickly changed as we saw two jeeps coming on the serpentine road towards us. I could make out a few rifle bearing folks sitting in the semi open jeeps.
Nagbaba told us as we looked on, “Here he is. Bhaiya, do not have any fear. These people feed on it. Be stern with the Raja.”
I quickly told Tilak and others, “Only I or Nagbaba will speak and show courtesy. Rest be unconcerned.”
The two jeeps halted in front of the temple courtyard. Twelve rough looking strong built men got down, four of them carrying rifles. Raja Saheb got down at last. He wore spotless white kurta pyjamas and white shoes and had goggles on. He also wore diamond earrings.
He walked to the courtyard and greeted Nagbaba like an old friend, “How are you? I am glad we have decided to meet.”
Nagbaba was silent. While Raja Saheb was thinking that the meeting was about Nagbaba discussing his terms to cooperate and avoid police troubles, we knew it was only going to be about holding him here for my meeting with Dau.
Nagbaba introduced me to Raja, “This is Bharat Bhaiya. He was the one who had that accident and whom we had given the shelter.” I was an unexpected guest. I could sense some uneasiness in him; now he was not sure of the purpose of this meeting.
I said, to settle his nerves, “Raja Saheb, Nagbaba has told me about your hold with police and our situation.” It was a lie – we never believed in his clout. But it was enough to make him swell with pride and loose his focus. I could see why no one gave him any weight.
I continued, “So we will need your help. But we also need your help in another matter – we have a project in Pipariya, and Dau's brother has been interfering in it. We want assurances from Dau also.”
Raja Saheb tried his arm. He said, “As far as I am concerned, I have nothing to do with you. And I cannot help in your project in Dau’s area. Nagbaba invited me here to discuss our future work. What you say doesn’t concern me.”
I continued, “Raja Saheb, we work together. The police threat has no meaning for us. But after thinking on your proposal, we find it can have good money for you.”
Raja Saheb smiled, “In a short time, Nagbaba has become more friendly to you while he has distrusted his own like me ever since. Anyhow its good if you want to make amends. It will be good for all of us.”
Raja had left his men outside the courtyard. They were watching from a distance. Keeping one foot bent over the nearby stairs, he behaved in a manner to show to his men that he was in command here.
I said, “See you and Dau are strong folks, and I am not entirely comfortable after the car incident. I need some assurance of safety while meeting him, just in case we can’t come to an agreement.”
Raja Said, “My word is enough.”
I said, “I can trust you but not him. You know they don’t have a royal family background.”
I was over praising him but I had my goals. I had chosen peace at all cost, not realizing that there was no peace in this world, here or in Mumbai, as long as folks like Dau or Sardars remained with such power, and were deeply entrenched in the system.
I continued, “We will need you to be with us, while I am meeting Dau at his home.” I said plainly.
Raja’s face went white. But he quickly recovered, quite aware of his audience watching him. All those outside the courtyard were with him as long as he looked in control. They were neither his well wishers nor his security, but they were weak folks despite their four rifle display. So they needed him. And he carried them where he went.
He thought for a while, evaluating our reaction if he said no to us. Then he agreed. Yet, I thought he could be treacherous - He would forget it once he leaves this place. So I said, “Raja Saheb, it’s a small thing we ask for. We can meet Dau today itself. You can fix it on phone from the nearest village and return here. Meanwhile you can leave one jeep and men behind.”
He got angry and thundered, “I don’t want these men to stay back. They are not a part of it. I am helping you as you look like a good person but don’t try to overstep.”
I must say it was a threat that must have shaken many weak people or made them angry. I could see Sooraj was shaken but Tilak was boiling. Nagbaba was equally unaffected. It seemed that all those who seemed scared watching his body language were those whom he had brought. They were nervous. Nagbaba knew if one of them cracks and points a rifle to us, it could be a blunder. The tribals were watching for any signal to act to save us. It could have been bloodshed.
So Nagbaba smiled and called loudly for the priest, “Baba, please send some prasad.” There was no baba around; he had run away for a while. But the loud call calmed the nerves of those around the jeeps.
Raja replied honestly now, “I cannot leave anyone behind and leave for a couple of hours. They will instinctively realize they are being used as security for something and get mad. It will be a loss of face.”
I asked, “Do you have one trusted person here, who can call Dau and handle your message?”
That settled the argument. One of the jeep drivers was an old timer. He would leave with Tilak and others who came in the jeep. It was going to take them an half an hour to reach the nearest village where they could get the network. And then return. From here, it would take me three hours of drive to reach Dau’s palace. The meeting was to be fixed in the evening, giving me another two hours to sit with Prakash and let him know.
It seemed that the day would bring the relief I needed. But I was not aware of other snakes watching – the Sardars. They had the news that Raja and Nagbaba were meeting at the temple. Soon they would know that I would meet Dau. Without knowing the context, they were getting insecure and gathering venom.
Once Tilak had left in the jeep, Nagbaba also wanted to walk inside the forest and remain there –hidden from others but he could watch us. He called a couple of men and left them in the temple courtyard, as he walked back. Before he entered inside the forest, I walked for a few minutes with him. On the edge of the forest, we halted.
He shook my hands and said, “Bhaiya, you are on your own now. Hope everything goes well.” Then he gave me a parting gift, a large bird’s claw. “Keep it,” he said, “it will protect you.”
I said, “Nagbaba, don’t worry. You have made enough provision for my safety.” Then I wishfully added, “Once I am out of this mess, I will be in a better situation to do more for your community.”
He said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your burden.” We parted and I walked back to the temple.
Raja was in a lighter mood by now and was chatting with Sooraj. He called me and said, “Come. I was telling Sooraj about our lineage. My father used to hunt in these forests till even 1950s. All this was part of our Riyasat (Princedom).”
Quite aware that I was not appreciating his bragging, Raja suddenly changed tracks, “Actually we preserved tigers by hunting them. We would harm only the old ones and the man eaters. Had we allowed the common man to kill tigers, they would have wiped out everyone. When we handed over the Riyasat to Indian government in 1950, there were still dense forests here and hundreds of tigers in it. Now there are none.”
I asked, with genuine interest, “What did your father do after the government took over the Riyasat from him and the land revenue collection rights?” I wanted to hear his version.
Raja replied, “When British were there, we were reporting to them, and before that to Gwalior Riyasat. Once British went and government annexed our state, my father joined the ruling party. He was a foresighted man, realizing that we would remain in power by joining politics. The government took away our state with a vengeance, as if taking a revenge for our siding with British. But within a few years, we were again ruling but this time through democracy. I still am the representative of the party in this region.” He said with pride.
A jeep with an orange beacon light appeared on the road, coming towards us. My heart sank with a fear of some bad news about Tilak. I thought,’ May be they are taking a routine round on the road, and has nothing to do with us.’
Raja Saheb also became cautious, as did the many invisible tribal men with Nagbaba. The jeep left the road and came straight towards the temple. It just had three men in it – the driver, an armed guard in police uniform and the Tehsildar, Mr.Patil.
Raja greeted him, “How are you Tehsildar ji? How come you are worried about me today?”
Tehsildar was an elder man, in his fifties, small built and with thick glasses. He was holding a post that had most of the judicial and administrative powers over this region– one tehsil. In his tehsil, he was next to God for the poor folks. In the administration, he was the higher offiicials' and politicians' man to kick.
He greeted Raja and said, “Vikram Singh ji, I have to keep a special eye on you. I heard that Nagbaba was also here meeting you. I suggest you keep away from this area and let us officials rest more.”
It was an insult Raja found hard to bear in front of me. For the descendant of local chieftains, accepting this dominance was unnatural.
Raja replied, “Tell your masters I came here for a different work, not to meddle in their affairs.” Raja definitely did not intend to call the senior officers as ‘masters’. Most likely, he was referring to the Sardars.
Tehsildar said, “Good,” and then turned to me. He knew who I was, and said, “Sir, this place is not for you educated folks. I know about the attack on you but sort it out in courts, not here.”
I saw no point in avoiding him, “Sir, a worried mind searches for answers. You know how matters are. I too look for solutions.”
He was pleased and said, “You should meet me in office sometime.” Then he gestured to leave and sat in his jeep.
The temple priest had disappeared in the morning and informed someone, who in turn had told the Tehsildar to find out the purpose of this meeting.
A few minutes later we saw the returning jeep. Raja’s driver had completed his job in two hours or so. The driver returned with the message that we could go to Dau’s home today itself in the evening. Dau heard the grievances of local folks after four p.m. every day.
Nagbaba appeared from behind the bushes. He pointed to two tribal man who were going to go with us. I had intended to take only Tilak and Shafiq. But Nagbaba was now adamant. He took me aside and said, “Bhaiya this Tehsildar's visit is not a good sign. The Sardars are also watching now, for no reason. Please don't take any risk. They may not do anything if a tribal of our belt is with you – any harm will spoil our passive stance to their activities. Dau is anyways bound by this Raja.”
‘One last time’ I thought. I was going to meet one don while a rival group kept a watch. I understood that both were extremely insecure and ruthless groups, and constantly searched for a person who could become a threat.
We started the journey in the Safari – I, Tilak, Shafiq, the two others being Bihu and Sukhdev. Sooraj stayed back at the temple with Raja Saheb while Nagbaba went again inside the forest watching them from a distance.
As the safari reached the T-junction meeting the State Highway, we saw Raju Mama waiting at the tea stall a hundred meters away and waiving his hand to stop us. ‘How the hell he knows we were coming this way?’ I thought.
I shook hands with him and sat down for a tea. He then introduced me to a person accompanying him – one who seemed like a north Indian, and had thick Sindhi accent. Raju Mama explained, while he looked apologetic, “Bhaiya, this is Lucky. He is my close friend. He wanted to meet you urgently.” From his name, I knew he was the feared Lucky Sardar, the representative of the Sardar’s group.
I did not ask for explanation from Raju Mama – he was under pressure. I politely greeted Lucky and we sat in the tea stall hut. I was not going to ask the purpose. Lucky said, “Sir ji, I have heard that you are meeting Dau Patel today and had some private chat with Raja.”
I replied, trying to guess, “Yes. The Tehsildar must have informed you. But how does it matter?”
Lucky Sardar said, “Raju is my close friend. So I was worried and came here.” I looked at Mama but he was too weak to deny the friendship.
He continued, “Bhaiya, these Dau and Raja are rabid dogs – you do favor to them and all they would do is bite back. All I have to say is do not make any compromise with these folks.”
“See,” I said, “I have no liking for them. But we have operations in Pipariya and money invested. And he almost wiped me out for no reason and now I am a suspect in a case. Now they want to ruin the project. I need to clear a lot of misgivings with them.”
Now, his tone became plain, “Bhaiya, all I have to say is that we consider you to be one of our own. Do not agree to anything that involves Nagbaba and tribals. And do not let my boss feel that I have no say in your Pipariya business. You will be much better off with us. You are free to discuss the police case but if you want, I can speak to my boss in Indore to see if he can help.”
It was a defining of my boundaries. I just said, “I will keep it in mind.” Then we quickly took leave and drove in silence.
Tilak broke the silence. He said, “Bhaiya, what do we do now? Do you think he was serious?” It was more a conversation starter. We both knew this Lucky Sardar warning was genuine.
We were still two hours away from Dau’s house. I was evaluating turning back when my cell rang. We were again in range. It was Prakash. He said, “Bhaiya, heard that you are coming to meet Dau. His man came and informed me that Dau has summoned me to come at five.”
I replied, “Yes Prakash. I had to meet him so that his folks do not trouble in your work. But you don’t go there alone. I will come and meet you first.” I was not sure if I needed more time. My mind was not working anymore.
Prakash was eager, “Dau’s men are a big nuisance, they hang around at all times monitoring us.”
I asked, “Why? The guards we have employed don’t stop them.”
Prakash said, “Bhaiya, these guards have all been hired from nearby villages by the security agency. They know Dau’s men and try not to offend. We can’t expect much from them. They are only good enough to contain weak folks and direct vehicles moving in and out.’
I said, “Let me come there and discuss before we meet Dau. We will have enough time.”
My mind was jumping from one scenario to another. I decided to talk to my father; may be his old head had more experience. I narrated the scenario to him though ignoring many details. I told him that Dau and Sardars both wanted me to be on their side. Side was a more respectable term. And I told him either of them will mind if I don’t agree.
After hearing it out, he asked, “But why you even talk to them?”
I signaled Tilak to stop the car, and I got out answering alone, “Because I want to be out of all this. I cannot handle this police, or run a business in this state, or even think of a normal life. When I told you I had enough money to handle cases and come out, I was naïve. They can manipulate anything, if they come to it. We have no power, no money to be at loggerheads with them.” I had suddenly become the ten year old, wanting some comfort.
My father thought silently for a minute. Then he said, “Don’t despair so much. Dau and Sardars are also big people. Big folks have bigger hearts. Dau will listen to you and. You remember Agarwal – see how generous he turned out to be. Meet elder Dau, and tell him of our situation. They will solve it.”
In that dark mood, Agarwal did look like a generous person. And that raised my spirits. We drove on as I watched the fields for next one hour.
It was time when wheat and gram crops were still green. It was dark green of acres. It looked like an year of bumper crops. But good crops didn’t mean a break from exploitation for the growers.
Our project was trying to give them access to fair prices and then sell at peak price of the year, while taking the interest cost of the holding period. Even in less volatile years, this was a forty percent gain for farmers. Our new massive warehouses were made to hold the produce as mortgage while the Commodity exchanges would let them choose the price. While initially the farmers were skeptical of this, Prakash had gone from village to village to explain. And they had found the initial set of adopters, enough for our profits this year.
It was very different from the Mandis or physical exchanges run by the local elected bodies. Mandis, though started as a market place for fair price discovery, had become tools for many corporates and local politicians to make money.
A complex combination of laws, policies and government structure, created something like a matrix. The disruptive elements like me were watched with caution by the matrix beneficiaries, and the insiders. They had nowhere to hide.
I decided to call the Lawyer Verma ji. Fortunately, he was able to take the call. I told him about my meeting with Dau, and the events of the day and the nuisance at our Pipariya operations.
Verma ji said, “I have never heard about Sardars; maybe they have different names in different areas. Dau Patels are now weak at top levels in state. But they are very strong in Pipariya area. They have good hold over lower level local police. These lower policemen are ill trained, are locals and easily get into payoffs made by Dau.”
He continued, “Whatever be the discussion, just remember that you don’t need Dau or anyone for your case; it is already strong. Let it come to trial and witnesses –I will tear apart the prosecution theories. Also remember that Dau or for that matter anyone like him, will not break laws. If they have to be illegal, they will make sure they look totally disconnected from it.”
I replied, “Verma ji – I still have two worries. Irrespective of the case, Dau won’t let anyone run a project without them in his area. I am prepared to ignore all profits and future payoffs, but I need time to exit to save the investment. This part does not concern you. But if Dau or Sardars influence the lower level judge, can you guarantee that all your logic will prevail in lower court?” I asked.
He said, “There is no such guarantee. But what you envisage is a very improbable event. Influencing a judge in a remote place like Pipariya is one thing, doing it in Bhopal is another matter. But if it happens, we can appeal to higher courts, and it is almost impossible for them to influence the higher courts.”
Then I said, “If it comes to that, howsoever small chance may be there, then lower courts can call us guilty and by the time we come clean again, it will be long time – time enough to completely spoil mine or Sooraj’s life. I can’t take that risk.” With that our call got over.
We were nearing Pipariya and in the clear air, one could see the entire Satpura ranges, just 10 kilometers to the south.
Prakash was eagerly waiting for us in the storage premises. This was my first visit after the attack. Then it was a vacant place but today it was full of activity – loading machines were working at full pace. Many new technicians had been hired – one for electronic control, one for data entry and others to look after machines and cooling plants. We settled down in the office room. Prakash signaled to others to move out for some time. I narrated the events since the morning to him.
Then he started, “Bhaiya, Dau’s brothers have been a big nuisance here.”
I asked, “Prakash, do you think he will let us run this facility without his patronage?”
Prakash replied, “So far we have been able to avoid his interference. I have spoken to the local Tehsildar; he says he cannot do anything unless there is some evidence. Then we will have to report it.”
He continued, “But we can’t go back now- I have committed to farmers of higher returns from their crop selling, to get the first adopters.”
I took a deep breath, and said, “See, even if Tehsildar promises to do something on complaint, there is not much hope. Dau Patel has been controlling coal trade till recent years; most of the mandi agents are theirs, they run seed and fertilizer agencies, and have contacts all the way to all to Delhi. They will be brutal if they see their reputation in any threat. A threat to them is a visible symbol that these storages are run without their nod. Their rivals will not forget to boast that we represent them – you know how village rumors work.”
Prakash frowned, “You are too scared after your accident. I have been roaming here for months, even in interior villages and nothing has happened to me. May be the attack on you was due to something else.”
I said, “May be. But the dead goon was traced to a nearby village- the recruitment ground for Dau. You and Ravi will be at severe risk if they perceive any threat. That is another reason it’s not worth it. We have a long life ahead to do much bigger things in better places.”
Prakash argued, “If everyone thought like that, then there will be no progress.”
It was first time in a year that I had been frowned upon or argued back by Prakash. I sensed he no longer saw me as his boss but a weakling.
I said one final sentence, “Prakash, we are not a law enforcing team. We won’t be even able to prevent anyone harming us here. There will be many such projects in life if we survive this one. But anyhow, we will discuss this after meeting Dau. For this meeting, just remember that we haven’t thought of any closure, and it should look like that.”
Prakash closed with a remark, “I anyways never did.”
I ignored it and moved towards the Safari. Tilak whispered, “Bhaiya, Prakash looks like a loose cannon; he is in his own world.”
The six of us started for Dau’s home. It was still 20 kilometers away on a muddy road.
I had expected to see a large village home, but in front of us was a huge mansion built in over half an acre, painted with spotless white. All around this mansion were fields with one muddy road connecting it to the highway. The front was neither gated nor fenced; one could walk straight to the reception hall, after crossing a parking studded with big cars. Oddly, out of all things, I thought that Income tax folks never had time to come this side of the world.
The cops never came to this side without prior intimation. One could see villages within a kilometer in most directions – looking like encircling the white house and keeping a tab of movements.
None of us had imagined this grand view. We left our tribal friends in the car. Inside the hall, there were many men and women sitting idle. There were a few men with rifles, and the walls had many swords, and rifles hung in display of the power.
I checked with a person, “I have come here to meet Dau Patel. He knows about it.” The man pointed me to another one, who wrote my name and whereabouts on a paper, and went inside.
Meanwhile, one old woman sitting by the entrance wall could not hold back her curiosity, and asked Tilak, “Bhaiya, which desh (country) are you from?” Tilak answered, “We are from here only.”
The lady continued, “Don’t look like. Did anyone take away your land?”
I noticed all of the villagers were listening. Such folks came daily from nearby villages with their problems. Some of them had been here for even three days as their problem hadn’t been solved. It was confusing for me. Dau had a decent and loyal following amongst the poorest in the nearby villages.
The man returned, and called us in. We left Shafiq to roam around.
Inside was another big room with another middle aged person sitting. This one asked us to leave all keys, cell phones and electronics. Then he frisked us. He was well trained, like someone retired from Army.
Then he led us through a long gallery, which was dark in some places due to its length and fading sunlight. On the other side, it opened into a garden on the rear side of mansion. It was a quarter acre of well maintained garden, with many small temples on the sides.
There were three men and an old woman sitting with back towards us, dressed in white, and a few more sitting on the ground with folded hands in respect. It seemed like a daily evening discourse.
The man leading us asked us to sit on the floor and wait for the session to be over. The whole set up – from the entrance to the frisking to this last step of sitting on floor and waiting- was meant to conquer weak minds. And it worked on villagers. I also suspected that Prakash had been overcome.
The discourse ended in ten minutes. The woman got up and went inside the house; she was Dau’s wife. In the middle was Dau Patel, with his one brother and son besides him. Dau seemed around sixty plus and had white hair and white thick moustaches. All the three men had a Brahmin’s thread. They were called Patels, being big land owners, but they were Brahmins.
The brother recognized Prakash. He just nodded his head in recognition and did not smile. Prakash had an eager smile. The son softly explained to Dau who we were. We could not hear as we sat at a distance. Then the son and the brother left.
The entire compound was empty now. Dau invited us to occupy the three chairs. After working on our minds, he was now being gentle.
Dau asked each one of us about our background. At the end of it, he said, “Prakash is a very hardworking and honest person.” He had picked the weakest one out of us.
He didn’t like Tilak sitting on a chair at an equal level to us; after all we both were professionally educated and hence had some stature, but Tilak was nothing for him. He asked Tilak to go inside and help to bring tea. Tilak didn’t want to leave but I nodded to him to swallow it. Now, Dau had sent away the strongest amongst us – the one for who fear had no meaning.
Once Tilak left, Dau started, “You should not treat them as equals. There is a big difference between you and him. But you boys have traveled all over the world and will think bad of my advice.”
I just nodded. He continued, “But you don’t listen. My son is very obedient but he hasn’t traveled a lot. That is why I feel happy when folks like you come here and work for the development. But I have never seen anyone stick around for long. They come with promises, make money and leave.”
“Tell me what brings you here. But before that tell me why you thought keeping Raja as security would help because I don’t even care for that clown.”
Dau was trying to take away our sense of safety. I had full faith in Nagbaba’s advice. I hoped Prakash kept silent and he did.
Dau said gently, “I mean no harm to you. And I do not believe in revenge and violence. I have always followed Gandhi in my life. Don’t be misled by what others say and project us as. My folks have been instructed to protect our honor as peacefully as possible.”
He continued as his son joined back, “I know you think my men assaulted you. You are too quick and inexperienced; these are complex matters. My men never looked towards you guys. In fact, I need folks like you to think according to new times.”
I asked, “Then do you know who would have harmed me and why? The dead man was traced to a nearby village.” I added.
One servant brought tea cups on a tray. We accepted it. His son now spoke, “Even our own village has folks who are paid by Sardars - ever plotting to harm anyone close to us.. The Sardar's men have been watching your plans ever since you set up storages here. They were keeping an eye from distance but when that evening you spent a night inside Nagbaba’s village, it was a strict crossing of the line. They believed you work with us. Anyone trying to build any rapport with tribals is a menacing threat to their control over forests and iron ore smuggling. On top of it, you had this project here. Their reaction was immediate. You got caught in it unaware. You sought help of police folks but they didn’t come on time as they were forewarned by the Sardars. They don’t cross the ministers' men. Now you understand. Without our quiet support, your work here would not have even come this far. We supported you despite knowing that success of your project will affect our mandi agents. Many a times, we suspected that you were sent by Sardars but after the assault on you, we knew the truth.”
Before I could say anything, Prakash had an urge to speak. He said to Dau’s son, “But Lucky Sardar met Bhaiya in the morning and assured him of cooperation in our work.”
I went expressionless. I knew Tilak would curse me and would thrash Prakash if we got out of here. He had proven right that I had erred in bringing Prakash here, or maybe even hiring him. All his hard work and dedication to project looked worthless with this blunder.
Dau turned to his son and said sarcastically, “See these folks; we trust them blindly but they have an ear for Sardars and we are not even kept in loop till one spills it.”
I had to immediately be on defensive, “No, they just stopped us today noon while we were on way to meet you. Probably the Tehsildar went back from temple and informed them.”
But the damage was done. Dau knew we were rolling stones, talking to anyone who stopped us and capable of tilting to any side. In his world, there were only two sides – his own and the opposition. There was no scope for neutral ones– they had to perish.
Now Dau put down his final word, “Son, I cannot risk you to be on your own any longer. You will need to work under our patronage in your project. We will not interfere in your management or work but we will not allow any threats to our position.”
He saw my reluctant face, and continued, “You don’t realize how big is this blessing for you. Our friends may not be in power in the state but we still have many ties everywhere. We can throw more money than those that banks can provide you with – you can easily plan to ignore them now. Besides, there is no future in your project without us.”
Prakash seemed to be interested but I was not. I said, “I cannot do it. This is not what we set out for. I would prefer to discontinue if there is no way forward.” I had remembered Nagbaba’s advice to appear like one retreating.
He said, gently, “I don’t want you to fail. My affection for you has grown. I want you to understand that this is the world and there is no other way here. Anyone who operates a successful business here is a future threat to us and hence to our friends. You have to be on our side and your success is assured.”
I said, “I would like to think more and even consider winding up. It means no disrespect to you but we are probably not cut out for this life.”
Dau’s son said, “But it is too late for moving out. Media will paint us as the ones who arm-twisted you and spoilt the project. You have to remain the face now, or pay a penalty of ten lac rupees.”
Dau added, “Sardars have done a lot of harm to us. We reserve no mercy for them and their friends – think twice before a treachery to us. Already you seem to have an ear for them but this time you were naïve.”
There were no more veils left. The options on the table were: Pay and move out, or stay with them and pay with your soul, or take the risk. I looked up at the wall behind, lit by solar lights. There was a photo of Gandhi smiling, seeming to bless Dau with independence.
I needed to think and I told him that. We quietly took leave and drove back.
It was dark by now, made much darker by our silence. There was no point blaming Prakash or myself for our untrained tongues and minds. Prakash’s earlier aggression and bravado had vanished. Prakash tried to speak but I said, “We’ll worry later.”
We dropped Prakash and moved towards the temple, still more than an hour's drive. The roads emptied early in winters. We were the only vehicle on the road for long stretches.
We drove quietly till we reached the temple. It was half past eight. Sooraj and others were anxiously waiting. Nagbaba had also come out along with ten other men. They had lit a big enough fire to keep all the folks warm.
Raja asked me how it was. I replied, “It was good to know them but I need to think for more time about the offers.”
The priest was also present and listening. I told Nagbaba, “The priest quickly informs Tehsildar and Sardars about everything. One came here, one I met on the way.” All men looked at him. He looked scared, and said, “No Bhaiya, I did not tell anyone.” We ignored him and moved to see off Raja.
My team and the two other men drove in Safari by tar road to Revaram’s hut, while Nagbaba and others went on foot, taking the jungle paths. It was eleven at night by the time we settled. There was nothing to eat at that hour, in the village. Fortunately, we carried many biscuit packets in our bags.
Going hungry was no trouble for tribals but for us four, it would cause a loss of sleep.