4th April, 2008. Mumbai felt different this time. I stayed in a small obscure hotel near Andheri station. It had a narrow entrance on a road filled with squalor and human filth, and a tiny desk as the lobby. Given my money situation, it seemed a good option. Also, Andheri was close to Bandra, where I could meet Tara.
A few miles away, there were Hyatt and other high end hotels- places where I used to dine and party till a few months back. Despite this change of fortune, there was now a strange disregard in me, for all the glittery things. Somewhere inside, I felt a connection between their glitter and the distress in tribal villages or even my own one. Each car on the road was a few truckload of soil excavated from the forests. In between lay all the greed and distress. Mumbai triggered a lot of churn in my mind those days. I felt that the answers to a lot of urban distress lay in rivers and forests and farms, all that Nagbaba was trying to preserve.
In the evening, we decided to meet at Juhu, after she finished her work. Now days, Tara had been working long hours. She used to leave home at seven and return back by ten every day. Mumbai’s working hours had absorbed her. But today, she planned to be at Juhu by six, just before the sunset.
I reached there by five and found a nice spot on the beach to sit. In all these years of courtship, probably I had reached there before her for the first time. I was always late and then had to look for excuses.
Just before six, she was standing behind me. When two soft hands closed my eyes from behind, I knew nothing had changed. Some things were going to be forever in this world for me. I took her hands, and as she came in front, she gasped in horror, “What has happened to you? Are you fighting goons on roads?” My face had cuts and bruises and lips were still swollen. My body was also stiff. I answered smiling, “Not on roads, but inside my house.” I had not informed her about the events of last few days.
I asked her, “How is your work?”
She replied, “Have been working like a donkey. This year they should give me a hike but I am nervous since my boss hasn’t called me for discussion yet.”
I said, “Why do you worry so much about this job? Just keep your focus on getting an admission into a good MBA course this year.” I advised her.
She said, “My father says I can do it after marriage. He has a little more than a year left before retirement, and he is adamant I get married before that.” That was a hint for me to think about it. But I kept quiet.
As the sun set and we sat hand in hand watching the sea, I narrated the events of last few days. She had many questions – “Why did you give away your savings to these farmers – you could have borrowed from someone? How can your parents be so mean to a poor lady and a child? What was the need for you to fight these goons?” and many more. I had no answer to any of her questions.
Finally as we got up, she said, “Don’t worry; everything will be fine – now that you have come back. I should have never let you go.”
While she was comforting me, I felt that she was comforting herself. I realized that in last six months, she had imagined many nightmares. She have had led a nervous time all this while, as all her plans used to stop at me.
Then she asked, “Where are you staying?” I honestly replied.
She gasped, “That place is filth. You should have told me. I would have booked a nice hotel- at least some nice place to meet.”
I said, “No, you don’t spend. I will move to a better one tomorrow.” Many things in life are so strange and beautiful. When I was loaded with money and she had very little, I would not care if she paid our bills. We would laugh over it as she would compare my salary with hers and how little burden I shared. But now when I was on the financial edge, I had become protective of her money.
Just before taking an Auto, she asked, “Wouldn’t you come home and talk to my parents?”
I was hesitant but clarified else it my silence would have spoiled a nice evening. I said, “They would freak out if they came to know of the case and my troubles. They won’t like to come close to anyone with a case like mine going on.”
“But, we won’t tell them anything.” She said.
I answered, “We may keep silent now, but someday it will be known. What if, one of the goons traces your home? Do not worry; we will plan things at the right time.’
But my words had already set her mind to worry. Next two days, we had a tense time together. She had thought a lot about our future, and had immediate actions for me to follow, while I was blank about agreeing to her. We argued and reconciled numerous times.
She would say, “I won’t like your parents in our house, now that I know what they did to Tulsi. Now I cannot expect them to be understanding.” If I did not contest, she would say, “But how can you leave them alone after these events?” Her mind had been too perturbed about many things.
Once I mentioned that I need to find Tulsi and Muniya. She said, “Tulsi is grown up. You need not worry about her anymore. It is not your burden.” I answered, “But I made a promise to her husband. You know he saved my life.” She agreed, and then get worried, and said, “You already have the case, the claim, your parents to look after and other problems also. Now you have added more to the list. Seriously, I think this relationship doesn’t matter to you anymore.”
When I was not around, she had not been so worried about my problems and trusted me to overcome them. But now that I was present, she could feel them and wanted fast relief. I now realize that she was unfamiliar with this territory, yet struggled with quick ways of coming out of it. Her love for me and for her dreamt future was tearing her apart. In addition, she also worried about her family’s reaction to my situation. In between, we would try to reconcile to the situation, be optimistic and we would again be thankful for being together.
Three days had passed. On third night, I called up Tilak. His voice had urgency. He said, “Bhaiya, be careful. These four folks have not been seen in Pipariya. Raju Mama is keeping a watch. We have also not seen them around your house. But they might be tracking your cell location. You must switch it on only for calls, and not while traveling.”
I asked him if my parents can now return to our home, and he can guard it. He said, “Yes, we won’t let them harm anyone.” I thanked him for being there in this hour of need.
Though it was not legal to trace someone’s phone calls and location in India, many Police stations had the facility to do so. And ordinary policemen would provide this service to criminals for a petty bribe, as ordinary folks never needed it.
Then I spoke to my parents. They were fine. I told them they could return after a few days. They were relieved to hear my voice. I told them I would keep my cell off.
Next morning, I got up late. I felt disconnected or numb. There was no emotion for anyone or any inclination to get up and go out. I knew by previous experience that I needed to sleep over it. It was a PTSD symptom. In last few weeks, most memories had been revisited and there was enormous stress. I took early lunch and then a tablet for sleep and dozed off. Tara must have called many times during the day. Then she decided to finish her work early. She reached my room by five. I was still asleep when she rang the door bell and woke me up.
She came inside, and asked, “Why have you been sleeping so much?” I pointed to the tablet. I told her, “I was feeling disconnected. Doctor had asked me to take this to sleep.”
She was aghast; she had a bad notion about folks taking sleeping pills. It was completely out of her list. She said, “This is the limit. Next you will graduate to drugs. I can’t take this anymore.” I asked her to calm down and find out more about PTSD.
But she was not the old self I knew – someone who would cheer up on just seeing me.
She said,’ Bharat, you have changed a lot in these six months. Earlier you would enjoy small things; you would make me smile with little jokes. Now you are different. I understand what all you are undergoing, but I can’t take that stress anymore. I have been thinking that I need to be alone. I need to get an admission for an advanced degree this year itself.”
I agreed, “Yes, you need to be more educated. Look at me - what tricks time can play with someone. Our qualification remains even if everything else is taken away. I will help you in admission preparation.”
She said, “No, I am not asking for your help. You don’t understand what I mean. You have to be on your own. I can’t take the stress of worrying about us anymore. I will be nowhere in life if I do that. You also need less strings attached to you, if you want any hope of coming out of this mess.”
I don’t know if she was speaking those words for herself or for me. We sat silent for some time. Then she said, “Let us go out for an ice cream, one last time.”
We went out; we were silent all this while. I tried to rationalize what she had said; maybe she was right – there was no future for us, when it was so uncertain even for me alone if I did not get over with the case and all other recent developments. I could not clearly see what I would do about Tulsi and Muniya, or those goons who would harm others if I fled. I could not drag her into this uncertainty. She was five years younger to me and I still wanted her to go for higher degree.
My decision was made.
I remained silent, and turned my head down. I knew she was also very broken. I didn’t want her to see my wet eyes. Just before parting, she tried to cheer me up, “I will always care for you. One day things will change – who knows.” But I didn’t look up even as she went away.
As I walked back to the hotel, I thought about my parents, Sooraj, Tulsi, Muniya and many others. It lessened my grief but it also took away my strength to call her and persuade Tara and make her believe again in our future.
It was late evening, but I checked out of the hotel. I went straight to Kalyan station, and bought the ticket for New Delhi, and then waited on Platform Five for any train to arrive.
The first one to come was heading towards Nagpur. It also had less crowd in General Category coaches. I boarded the train without much thought. Any direction seemed equally meaningless. I just wanted to run. Probably Nagpur rang a bell; ‘Let me try to find Tulsi’, I thought.
Fate has many tricks. I still wonder that how the dots connected to make me go to Nagpur that day.
Once the train moved, I got a place to sit. There was a diary and pen in my bag. I took them out and wrote most of the time– they were incoherent thoughts about why Tara had left; then some details of storage fire scenes, and an account of my thrashing. Now, when I look over those pages, the words look those of a different mind.
The train reached Nagpur in the morning. I sat on a stone bench under a pillar on platform number 4. I used my bag as the pillow and lied down. A railway policeman woke me up with his lathi. It was almost noon. He was gently tapping on my legs. He asked in Marathi, “Where is your ticket?”
I showed him the one bought at Kalyan and told him I needed to go to Delhi but came here by mistake. He said, “You seem educated, then also this mistake. Go buy a new ticket. No more sleeping here. Take your bag and move.”
As he walked away, he made a remark, “All jokers come straight to railway station.”
As I was preparing to move, an old voice called me, “Come, you can sit here.” There was an old beggar woman sitting on the floor just fifteen steps away, right next to the wall of the ramp. There was a cement bench next to her lying vacant. As I walked there, one chai vendor commented in a joking manner, “Budiya abhi kuch to chuna lagayegi.” It meant ‘Now, the old woman will siphon off something.’
The old woman answered to him in a hurt voice, “I won’t take tea from you.”
There was a healthy leg pulling going on between the various occupants there. It was their daily affair.
Once I sat next to her, she started, “Beta, I haven’t had tea since the morning. Please buy me one.”
I looked at her. Though she looked quite old and wrinkled, but might have just been in her sixties. She had thick soda glasses, with only a few teeth intact. Next to her there was a cloth bundle, and a small aluminum can, with handle. It was a multi-purpose can. During daytime, it was used as a begging bowl. At night, it was used for keeping drinking water. Even in summers, she had a lot of clothes on. They had not been washed for months, or may be years.
I asked the tea vendor nearby to give two teas. He said, “Sahab, you take one, I will give free to Amma.” As we sipped tea, Amma asked, “Where are you going?” She was a very talkative lady.
I said, with a deep breath, “Amma, where can one go if bad time chases him.”
Then she asked, “What is your problem?” I replied in the same vein, “If I had one, I would have surely narrated it to you. But there are too many.”
She had a solution. She said, “Then, you must go to Haridwar. Even better is Rishikesh where Mother Ganga first leaves the mountains. You take a bath there and then see how your time turns.”
I smiled and asked her, “Have you been there?”
She said, “No. But I will go there one day.” She was quite good spirited and cheerful.
Then she said, “Son, can you get me a Glucose biscuit? I can’t take tea without biscuit.” I went and bought a ten rupee packet and gave to her. She opened it and offered two biscuits. But taking it from her was a huge mental block. Her surroundings and clothes were too unclean. I made an excuse, and refused. Anyhow, I hadn’t been hungry due to the mental state since last evening.
I asked her, “How much do you earn every day?” She said, “I don’t count. I just keep twenty rupees. Rest I give to a person. He sees that I get to keep this place and get food and care from vendors around.”
I said, “That means you save six hundred a month, or around seven thousand in a year.”
It was an innocent comment but it triggered a funny reaction. Amma quickly turned to her bundle of clothes and kept it close to her arm. And became very stern faced; trying to stop the conversation. She did not look towards me.
I smiled but rectified the situation. I said, “Amma, I don’t need any money and I don’t steal.”
She eased a bit, and said, “When I go to my village once a year, I give it to my sons and my grandchildren.” Then she talked about herself.
She was from a village that was half an hour from Solapur. She had three sons, all married with kids and working as laborers in Solapur. Their wives were also doing odd works. After her husband’s death, they had sold off their one acre farm, and she worked for a few years as a farm labor along with her sons. Then a chain of movements brought her to Nagpur and then to the Railway station. She had been here for two years now, and was quite happy. Railway station was a safe place. Now, the officials did not trouble her much. Once in a year, she would go to Solapur to meet her children. But they had no place for her, as she could not earn anything there now.
Soon a station official came on round with a staff with a railway police constable. As he spotted the old lady and talking to me, he shouted at his staff and gave instructions, “Throw this Amma out of the station. If she doesn’t listen and comes back, then open her bag and bring it to me.”
Then he shouted at her, “We had told you not to come here. You won’t listen like this.” She just sat with her hands folded and head down as if praying to the official. Then he continued his round.
My blood boiled as I watched Amma. I told her, “Some men are worse than animals.”
What she said was a lesson for me, “Beta, please don’t say this for this official. He is like a saint.”
I wondered, “Amma, he could have treated you better.”
She said, “If he had ignored me, someone might have complained about me to him or to the Station master. By shouting at me like this sometimes, he becomes bad but I get sympathy of the commuting passengers. Today he must have seen you sitting close and thought you might point it out to him. So he shouted. He is a nice man. He makes sure I am warm in winters and takes care. He only got me these glasses.”
I was deeply moved. Some other day, I would have been angry at the official for not keeping the place clean and letting beggars in without tickets. But today, I respected him for acting as per rules, yet helping in breaking them. I remembered Verma ji’s words, ‘This country is still run by lord Ram.’
I told Amma, “Amma, whatever it is, a home is a home. Go back and enjoy your remaining time with grandchildren.”
She said, “Beta, poverty and hunger test all relations. I gave all that I could to my sons, so somewhere they still love me. But the daughter-in-laws have no mercy. They think I will eat from the children’s plate. At least here I have respect.”
I sat there for some more time and chatted with her. Then I decided to try my luck in finding Tulsi. As I got up, Amma asked, “Are you leaving now?”
“Yes,” I said, “I have to find someone in the city. I will be back in the night to catch a train.”
I came out of the Station. Nagpur still had hand rickshaws on road. It was and remains the most enigmatic city to me. On one hand, there were only a few folks with enormous wealth –enough to distort the local market. On the other, there were hordes of laborers, beggars and small folks on the streets. It was the city with much distorted income distribution.
I took a hand rickshaw and asked him to take me to a prominent labor peethas. There were two- very near to the station. A ‘Peetha’ is an unorganized labor market place, found in most cities. Every morning, individual labor will come and stand there. The contractors or individuals would come there, bargain a rate for the day and take the labor with them.
I had hoped to find Tulsi or some information about her in these Peethas. But my hope was short lived. The market had been so depressed that even at four pm, there were at least a hundred men and women loitering around, not having found any work for the day. With so much supply these days, most of the labors kept moving to better locations. It was futile to ask the shifting folks about Tulsi.
I returned back to the station by seven. The station had come alive as there were lots of trains scheduled in the evening. Where to go next was the question? I could not go back to Bhopal; it was prudent to be away for now.