I spent next few days communicating with the lawyer Verma ji, the Insurance surveyor Rao and Mukesh. I had three main agenda items left– closure of case, recovery of amounts and transfer of business to Mukesh. Then I could plan future differently. I did not see much hope in this country.
But unlike earlier times, I was not anxious about it. I felt an inner freedom and peace. The peace and grace that I felt was also passing onto my parents. Though our situation hadn’t changed much materially, the usual quarrels between them were gone.
Mukesh had been managing the trading shop well. When he had taken over, there were losses but now the books were showing a healthy net profit of forty thousand a month. He had replaced most highly known brands with local ones. The bottled water, which he was supplying even in bulk to homes, was contributing to half of the trading profits. He had slowly replaced the known water brand with a local one. Earlier he would make two rupees on a litre while selling it for fifteen rupees. With a local brand which had same quality standards and certifications, he was making six rupees on a litre while selling it for twelve. The customers were also increasing.
He had made payoff arrangements with various types of taxmen and inspectors – food, shop, and labor inspectors primarily. Every month, some cash was adjusted in the sale registers. It was still showing as Cash balance in the books, which he didn’t have. Also, it seemed quite high to me.
I said, “Mukesh, this is a lot more than their normal payout rates. Now our business has become small, we should be paying much less.” He was puzzled, and said, “But it doesn’t go to anyone else. I pay to them only.”
We got down uncovering the mystery of these inspectors demanding so much. It was known that the distributors of the Branded foreign bottled water companies had been using the inspectors and taxmen to harass the local brand sellers. In our case, they were substituting harassment with more collection. Like most of small sellers, Mukesh also was a simple mind who preferred peace first. But in the overall analysis, he was paying a heavy price.
I asked him, “Do you want to continue this business?” He was optimistic, “Bhaiya, from now on I will keep a check on these payments. Our profits will only grow as sales grow because these payouts will remain same.”
I said, “See my intention was to transfer this whole business to you. But now I think these elements will never let you grow beyond a certain income. If you earn more, these inspectors will become more greedy. The hole they create in your books will itself lead to more demand from income tax officials. If you manage to go further, then I don’t know which tactic you will face from puncturing of tires to sabotage. The settled brands have invested in an ecosystem and it won’t be easy for you. I think it might be better to shut this business and you find a stable job anywhere. You may earn a bit less but will have less stress and better health.”
Mukesh didn’t seem convinced. He saw a bright future in what was a futile enterprise in my eyes. I advised him to think over it with his family. I was willing to transfer my stake of the business to him which was the majority stake.
I asked the same questions to Sooraj. He agreed on trading business closure but wanted to continue in whatever I did. He thought he could fit anywhere, being skilled in accounting entries. I asked him to wait till my cash situation improved.
Mukesh thought for many days, and then reverted, “Bhaiya, I think you are right. Once I find a job, we will close this.” The day came pretty soon as many of the distributors were willing to hire him. In a few days, we moved the inventory and furniture quickly on discount, and settled the payables.
On the morning of May 12, 2008, the office and store were shut, and lease terminated. While it lasted, the small cluttered office seemed a luxury compared to a large air conditioned one back in Mumbai. After all, it was ours.
Mukesh, Sooraj and six others had emotions, and I also didn’t escape them this time. Growing a small enterprise is like growing a small child. It saps one’s energy, and brings new joys and tensions each day. We had a modest parting lunch and then we went our ways.
Meanwhile, all these weeks Sooraj had been working on filing the documents required by Mr.Rao, the claim surveyor. His work was done by April end, and we eagerly waited for a call from the Insurance Company. My father was also involved in drafting letters and documents.
Once in a few days, when the anxiety got better of us, either of us called Mr.Rao and asked for an update. Finally, in the third week of May, he called and asked me to come for a meeting in Mumbai after a couple of weeks.
At the appointed time, I and Sooraj reached his apartment in Bandra, Mumbai. He lived with his wife in a rented place in an old, modest building. There was minimal furniture in his house. He being a leading insurance surveyor in the country, I had expected a lot more affluence. But his frugality was stamped everywhere.
Mr.Banerjee was also called for the meeting. Before starting, Mrs.Rao made us tea and some pakodas. Then Mr.Rao started. He first narrated the list of events and the documents filed by us. Once we checked, he took my signature of this list. Then in an alphabetical order of each party's name, he read out the assessment of their claim amount.
He had rejected all claims where the purchase or production receipts or the transport or weigh bridge receipts were missing. Within the shortlisted ones, he had then rejected any claims where he had not been able to cross verify the receipts with their source. He deemed them as fakes. I raised my hand to protest but he signaled me to wait.
In his final summary, he had approved a claim amount of rupees 270 lacs against the claim of 400 lacs. Most of the genuine but small farmers’ claims were rejected while our company stock was fairly given 90 lacs. The rest went to other traders.
I did some calculations silently. It would mean that after paying off the genuine farmers claims, we would be left with a little over 40 lacs. Our business partners who were also my erstwhile colleagues, had been very aggressive in demanding closure and their share from remaining amount.
I would be left with around 20 lacs out of my share. It would cover a majority of payment due to Dau and Agarwal and Raju mama and Tilak. Even a little improvement in the claim amount would free me from these burdens. With that thought, I protested again to Mr.Rao. I urged him to recheck the rejected receipts with their providers.
He said calmly, “See, on your written insistence, I will conduct that exercise once again. But your claim approval will be delayed by another six months. Then it may even get pushed to the next financial year. And by experience, I know it will be mostly a futile exercise. Even if you gain a couple of lacs, the delay is not worth it in my opinion.”
I knew he was not misguiding me. I also knew he was not a bribe expecting person; any such bargaining would have made him shun us. In fact, he had been pretty prompt in trying to finish his assessment within six months.
I asked him, “What are the chances that this assessment will be accepted by the Insurance Company promptly, without any second opinion.”
Mr.Rao said, “There is no such guarantee.” But Mr.Banerjee intervened, “I haven’t seen any of our assessment rejected in last 20 years. They know we are incorruptible, and thorough.”
Sooraj and I discussed it but there was little to deliberate upon. We signed the acceptance. As we got up to leave, I asked, “When can we expect the disbursement?” Mr.Banerjee said, “We will try to make it fast.”
Mr.Rao came to see us till the apartment gate. Just before parting, he hugged me and said, “Now you should leave worries behind, and do well for the country. Regarding the disbursement, I can tell you from my experience that they process all large claims only on the last day of the year. That’s how the industry works.” I understood. Then we wished him well and left.
This whole experience was one of my better ones - Mr.Rao had not brought in any complications into the discussion. Dealing with an honest official left such a pleasant feeling in this country.
All this while, there had been missed calls from my home. Both of them had been anxious to know how it went. I told my father, “They have broadly accepted our claim. Now Mr.Rao will send his assessment to the Insurance Company. They may take a few weeks to accept and process it.”
Sensing the relief on the other side, I did not give them the full information. And despite the result being lower than expected, I also felt very relieved.
We reached Kalyan station and waited for the next train.
Our case was listed for 27th May. It was still ten days to go. It was time to call the tribal witnesses to the court, and point out many flaws in the charge sheet. A message was sent to Nagbaba.
I used to stay at home most of the time, reading and surfing on my laptop. There was some peace at home since my parents understood that the Insurance amount would be sufficient to write off all debts.
On the scheduled date, I went to the court with Sooraj.
According to the police theory, there was no planned motive but a petty fight in the car which escalated to homicide. The forensic evidence for the petty dispute was multiple finger prints on the pistol, and the marks of scuffle between multiple folks at the spot. According to the police charge sheet, our statements were in contradiction to the forensic findings. The tribal village witnesses we had mentioned were not traceable and concocted. The only one witness, who agreed to our version about being chased and threatened, was the Inspector we had met before the accident. He had been true in his statements but it didn’t make for substantial evidence. He had been careful to point out the fading lights and low recognition.
On the same day, four tribal men came to my house, along with their identity proofs. They stayed with us, and Verma ji prepared their witness statements and prepared them for the cross examination by prosecution lawyer.
The prosecution lawyer was one Mr.Sharma. He had got into this government role, with some jack and payoffs. Always eager to strike a deal, he had been quite annoyed with us for not approaching him. We had already paid a lot otherwise.
To add to the grouse, Verma ji had an animosity towards this fellow. I feared that Sharma would tear apart the simple village tribals. But Verma ji was not worried. According to him, the onus of proving that the witnesses were lying on oath was on the prosecution lawyer. He would not be able to refute their identities and location, as the tribals lived in a village close to the incident spot. He would have to prove glaring contradictions in the versions given by the four tribals and then our statements. Since the truth was on our side, even by natural recounting of the event, there were no contradictions.
Only points were the exact time, distance for which Tulsi was carried, where he was bleeding and hurt, my condition and many such sundries. So they were prepared and the tribals briefed about many details which they could not have noticed or remembered.
Meanwhile, my father had been at work independently and without giving any hint to any of us. In last few months, he had saved some amount from the rental and pension. He had been thinking of investing it wisely. The final stage of our trial gave him such an opportunity. He had quietly gone to Mr.Sharma, and then to the reader of the judge. Overall he gave out one and a half lacs, all that he had saved. It was a very small amount by judicial standards. In such a case, the amount would not have worked had our case been false or weak. But the fact that it had been accepted gave my father such a peace of mind.
Normally my father was a skeptic and fearful of outcomes, but he was very relaxed before our dates. He told me not to worry. I came to know about his act from him, only after the case judgment was out.
Without this knowledge, we appeared on the appointed date. It was a large room with usual one witness box, and some benches. My parents, Sooraj's parents were also present.
Mr.Sharma cross questioned the witnesses but did not grill them as minutely as we had thought. And so our most crucial stage in the trial passed. The whole proceeding was over in less than half an hour. The next date was given one week later. It was the date for final arguments.
Once we came out of the court room, we were anxious to know from Verma ji how he felt. “I am quite positive” he said as he hurried to another court.
As I was climbing down the stairs, watching the crowded premises and replaying the day's proceedings in my mind, a flash thought occurred, ‘My God’. I hurried to the home.
There, Tilak was waiting. I told him, “Tilak, I feel Raju Mama is in grave danger.”
I explained the events that led to Lucky Sardar's death. Then I told my analysis to him. Raju mama was the first person in the chain of persons involved in that event. And he was the weakest link. If police even superciliously investigates the case, or if Dau gets slightly insecure, Dau would quickly act to break the chain. Tilak agreed. We concluded that Raju Mama would already be under surveillance by Dau.
I immediately called up Raju mama. After making sure he is not being overheard, I told him about our fears. Being a village man who had grown up listening to Dau’s terror, he was already aware of the practice of eliminating a link. He had the same fears but did not know what to do.
We made a schedule for him. He was to remain within his home premises all the time, pretending to be not well. He was to have one person company along with him, from amongst his family. If at all there was a need to go out, it would be unplanned. The paths he took would now be randomly chosen each time.
A weak person’s safety comes from secrecy and random behavior, I explained to him. Anyone removing a link would not want to leave more mess or witnesses. This caution was required for some months.
In addition to it, we developed a code to get away from watchful eyes. If he felt insecure, he was to call me and ask about my next visit. I would request him to buy and deliver some crocin to one tribal at the temple near forest. There they would take him with them. Crocin was the signal to the tribal guard that Raju mama needed help.
It was the first code developed. Over next few months, many such codes developed to hide information from the spies of Dau and Sardars. For example, if either I or Nagbaba were to call each other under forced circumstances, we would use the word bhai (meaning brother) repeatedly in the conversation. It would alert the one on the other side.
The week passed without any event. Folks around me were anxious about the next date. The final arguments passed without much surprises, and the judgment was reserved for next date after two more weeks.
At home, my father would endlessly debate about what the judge would say. Every morning, his spirits would be high, and he would assure me that he judge has no option but to rule in my favor. By evening, he would get lower on energy and become gloomy. Then he would blame Verma ji for taking the case lightly, and doubt the judge. This went on till the Day of Judgment.
Our case was listed for verdict on July 11th. I, Sooraj, parents, Mukesh and many friends including Tilak and Shafiq, were present outside the court premises. I felt that the judge will have a definite dislike for folks like Tilak and others from lower strata of society. I didn’t trust the maturity or fairness of legal system. A judge could easily have personal biases and opinions and defer the date to adjust the verdict. I shared my views with Shafiq and Tilak. They agreed and decided to keep away. So eight of us, including our parents and Sooraj’s sister, went inside the court room.
Most court premises in India have a temple inside them or adjacent to them. Some have mosque, or typically Sufi majars also around. My mother chose to sit there instead of coming inside the court room. It led to a public altercation between my father and her. He wanted her to come to the court room and present herself so that the judge may have more sympathy. But she was scared of leaving the God alone and incur His wrath. As it usually happened, both stuck to their stand till the time to decide arrived. Then my father left her and came to the court room.
Inside the room, a few other lawyers were sitting in the front row. We all occupied the last benches, leaving the middle rows empty.
The judge was yet to arrive. One of the lawyers approached me, “Sir, if there is a guilty verdict, I can arrange for a bail today itself. Else, it will be quite a costly hassle once they take you in custody. And it will delay the filing of appeal also.”
I signaled to him not to disturb for now but he kept persisting. I told him, “Sir, let the verdict be announced, then you can meet my lawyer.” He said with an insulting smile, “Then it will be too late. You have to think now.”
I told him to mind his affairs, making him retreat with the same insulting smile.
“All rise,” the security marshal announced, as the sessions judge entered. He was a middle aged man, with thin glasses and no smile. He straightaway went to the files kept on his desk. In fifteen odd minutes, he finished giving new dates, where there were such requests. Then he took up the judgment case where ours was the first one, before moving to trial hearings.
Our case number was called by the reader. Both Verma ji and Sharma stood up. The judge started reading from his pad, while his reader typed and lawyers listened. Sitting at the back bench, I tried to make out what he was dictating. First he started with points noted from prosecution side and then from defense side. Then he came to the decision. I could make out a few phrases 'lack of evidence', 'lack of credible witnesses', etc. It did not lead to any interpretation. Then I heard 'acquitted'.
In the following silence inside my head, I did not pay attention to the rest of the dictation. The judge had found the police investigation inconclusive. Instead of accepting our versions as correct and final, he had instead focused on not enough evidences or witnesses or motives. Hence there was not enough and conclusive proof to find us guilty or even involved in any other manner. It was a convenient way of giving judgment, keeping the justice alive while leaving scope for any correction if any higher court is approached and it takes a contrary view.
Verma ji thanked the court and we all came out. I would not have realized what I have achieved, had it not been for the wild celebrations by Sooraj's family and Tilak and friends. My mother was also ecstatic and bought sweets. We all went to my home where a small impromptu lunch party happened. Many neighbors joined and many calls were made across the country to many relatives, some of whom I had never known before.
This expression of happiness certainly compared to the ones at the birth of a male child. I had seen many earlier material successes in life, like clearing the toughest of examinations, job interviews, but had never seen such satisfaction on faces around me.
By night, things went back to normal. All day, I could not reflect on the developments. Whichever way the verdict went, it would have brought me to crossroads in life. So now I was standing at one.
One path would take me back to old days, Tara, a stable job and search for a permanent exit from this country. Probably all of them were still waiting for me to be back.
Another path was full of uncertainties. I had so many people around with whom a strong bond had developed and they had been by my side in the worst of times. I can say with confidence that none of them expected me to stay back, but they would have loved to.
After the last few months, I was now neither influenced by greed of a material safety nor feared any uncertainty. Yet my detachment was not absolute. I worried about the future of Nagbaba’s settlements, and the fate of Raju Mama, and others.
Then there were the two oldies. I had not forgotten their many idiosyncrasies, and the insult meted out to Tulsi and Muniya. I felt the distance between our worlds. Yet I felt it was beyond me to completely leave them out of my life.
Another thought that troubled me was the fate of Tulsi and Muniya. Their world was torn apart by my fate, and the country was full of cruelty to such women and child. There were many times in these months when that thought would occur and shake me up.
With so many thoughts doing round, I went to sleep. I woke up early, and went for a long walk. It cleared my mind. I had to find Tulsi and Muniya and restore normalcy in their lives. I could not manage this effort remotely. Only one path remained for now.
Then I called Tara. It had been a long while. I knew she would be relieved to hear about my case.
“So you are a free man again! I am so happy for you.” Tara exclaimed.
I recalled how many places we had paid a bribe since I had left the job, and many other details. I skipped the violent parts. I also told her about my next task. She agreed with that. After a long chat, she had to leave for work. Finally she advised, “Now you should find a good girl and settle down there.”
I smiled, “Do you still think good girls looking for a stable home would come running to me?”
She said, “Well, the chances are slim. But you still have great qualifications, so I won’t rule it out completely.” I interrupted, “But remember I don’t have the money to match the qualifications.”
She said laughing, “Then forget it. First gather something.” Then we hung up. I had the next journey calling me.