We had a long sleep. It was a foggy day.
Raju Mama wanted to leave as soon as he got up. I requested him to deliver the photocopies to Master ji, to which he happily agreed. He and Tilak walked away from the village with a bundle. I instructed Tilak to come back later in the day. I wanted to stay behind and think.
I had some aloe vera pulp and tea for breakfast. It was raw and peeled. Lakshmi had cut some plants that were growing nearby. Then with Nagbaba's permission, I went near the village river and sat on a rock, thinking about the tasks ahead. Unlike the clear water in most seasons, it was muddy and flowing fast.
If Dau's words were close to the reality that Tulsi faced, then finding her was going to be a challenge I was not ready for. I was neither a trained cop nor a criminal. Even if a few strong tribals helped me, we still needed a ruthless ability to hurt someone. There was no doubt in my heart that I was ready to pay for any unforeseen consequences. It might have meant never returning to a life I wished of. Also we needed good amount of money to run a search operation. I had close to none, not even to meet my expenses. But I was not gloomy about it. Now I believed that paths will appear if my purpose is noble.
Lost in these thoughts, I did not notice when Nagbaba had come and stood behind. With a gentle tap on shoulder, he said, “utthisht Bharat.” It meant 'Get up Bharat', a famous phrase. Such was the effect of that Sanskrit phrase that in that moment that I felt that the river, trees and sky, everyone was saying 'utthisht Bharat'.
A current ran down my small frame, and I got up, not to look back or have doubts again.
I walked back with him to the hut. I asked Nagbaba to identify ten or twelve folks who would help in rescuing Tulsi and Muniya. I also decided to seek Mr.Thakur's advice in the matter, ignoring Dau's caution.
We sat in the hut till lunch. Lakshmi had not had a chance to share yesterday's progress with Nagbaba. Now she said, “Baba, the college Master ji has so much knowledge. He saw the books and told what is written inside them.” She was a wonderful girl, full of optimism. I said, “One day, you will know more.”
Once she went away, Nagbaba asked me, “If this Vedi Sardar is harming our village faster, shouldn’t we do something soon? I have never seen so much mud in the water; looks like a lot of trees on banks are gone.”
I said, “We need to do something but I don’t know what. Let us go and see the truck tracks, till now I have only heard about them.”
We started to walk along the path from village to the small river. With the help of two sticks, I balanced myself while crossing the river. After crossing it, and walking for a couple of hundred meters, there were few more huts. Nagbaba gathered four more men from there. The adjacent forest area had less large trees but more tall grass. We were walking eastward. I had never been on this path before; I had gone to north, south and west of village earlier.
The truck track appeared after walking for about two kilometers.. It was a muddy, ten feet wide path, narrowing at places. There was no vehicle in vicinity but fresh marks were there. Last truck must have passed a couple of hours ago. The path went from a road in north to deep forest in south. We started walking south. There were temporary arrangements made to cross small rivulets. Just after half a kilometer, the path started climbing and winding. Only small lorries could have negotiated these turns. There was just enough space for one lorry to pass, and no visibility around turns. We were crossing a small hill. Another half a kilometer downward walk, we had reached another small rivulet flowing at the lowest points between two ridges.
We could hear a lorry approaching towards the forest, and stood by the side to let it pass. It would have been two or more kilometers away, as it took another ten minutes before it made the turn where we stood. He driver and helper looked outsiders, as they wore earrings, a practice not common here. They were very young boys. They ignored us as they drove past the empty lorry.
I asked, “How long it will take us to cover the truck path, if we walk like this?” It was futile to ask the distance.
One man said, “Three hours minimum.” Now my guess was that it was about twenty kilometers from here and at more height. There were many patches where felling and mine excavation would be going on, all connected to this path by more paths. I did not see any point in walking further. We sat there as I wanted to rest, spending time in idle talk.
“This is also the territory of T3, the largest tiger,” One man said.
I asked, “How do you know?”
He said, “I worked on temporary basis as a forest guard. I have seen T3 many times in this area.”
I said, “Then these trucks should be monitored by forest guards. These boys driving trucks come from broken families and poverty. They won’t think twice before helping any poacher for money.”
Another man said, “Bhaiya these guys are also very unclean. They spit every few minutes and their language is also very foul. I have interacted with them while breaking stones for this path.”
I said, “You are very blessed to be living in nice secluded villages. Otherwise, life for poor is hell in this country. These guys grow up in such circumstances that they don’t have a say over what they become.”
“But they should be told not to spit or defecate anywhere in the forest. They can bring diseases to wild animals.” I said.
The group could not relate diseases to spitting. But they kept silent for some time. Then one asked, “Bhaiya, then you will also say that we should stay away from these forests.”
I could see their insecurity. I said, “Probably not now. If you also go, then these guys will have a free run. Poor T3 will be the last tiger who ever lived here. But the fact is that in the eyes of nature, there is much more need for T3 than for thousands of us.”
Nagbaba said, “We need to reduce the burden of forest and be less dependent on it.”
Another fifteen minutes passed in our talks before we heard another truck sound coming out of forest. I said, “Let’s stop this driver and ask about the activities up there.”
Nagbaba said, “He won’t stop at our signal.” Then he instructed fellow men to arrange some stones immediately after a narrow turn. We waited just before the turn. I waived at the driver signaling him to stop, he waived back but kept moving without any intent to do so. The loaded truck slowed down at the turn and then he suddenly pressed the air brakes.
The driver and helper got down to remove the stones, as we walked to meet them.
The boy driving the truck avoided acknowledging our presence even as I stood near him. I asked him, “Why didn’t you stop when we waived?”
The helper replied, “Sir ji, we have to reach Hoshangabad within an hour, else boss will deduct entire day's salary, and give two tight slaps as bonus. We are already late.” His accent was either Haryanvi or Rajasthani but I could understand his dialect.
I asked, “How many trucks does your boss take out per day?”
The driver said, with sudden impulse, “Tu kya koi chowdhury laga hai?” (Brother, are you the chowdhury of this place). Colloquially, he meant 'who are you to ask me anything?'Nagbaba and others didn’t understand what he meant but could hear his insulting tone.
I said, “Yes. Now you better answer me.”
The driver replied, “See brother, we are just drivers. Whatever you want to ask, you ask our boss.”
I asked, “Who is your boss, and where is the office?”
There was a brief silence then he said, “Sit in the truck. You will only understand when he fingers your ass.”
This guy was a complete package of hate -his demeanor, tongue, words and tone. Even my calm blood boiled momentarily. Then I said, “Let's do one thing. You two go on feet, we will wait with the truck and meet your boss here.”
I signaled to the men to take the keys. This time the helper argued, “Sir, you all seem respectful people. But you are breaking law by doing this.” The men hesitated. They had limited sense of what laws were and had hardly seen them at work. But the law and dharma were quite high in their priority list.
I smiled and said to helper,” On paper, this truck and you guys are supposed to be elsewhere. Your boss is not even going to report the disappearance. He won’t admit to this illegal activity. Now get lost before we decide to take you with us.”
The men’s' dilemma was over. They firmed up. One of them moved ominously towards the driver with the axe but he only intended to take the keys. The driver kneeled down putting up an act of crying, “Sir, we are very poor people. The boss will not spare us if he doesn’t find the truck. He won’t trust us.”
The helper also joined the act. Their fear and cries seemed so real. Without the experience I have had after the fire incident, compassion could have affected me. But now I understood that such guys were beyond feelings, they had hardened enough in their young lives. They just lived for the immediate goal.
But I changed my mind. I said to others, “Let’s leave them here with the truck but deflate the tires. I don’t have much to know from them.”
One man said, “Bhaiya, the traffic will choke if this truck doesn’t move. They will soon send an air pump and get it moving. These guys might also have some equipment to fix one.'
I thought for a while and discussed with Nagbaba about various situations. Considering many stakes and scenarios, we decided to puncture all the tires. One man who had some driving experience on these roads said, “Bhaiya, let’s use thorns. There is a plant in this area infamous for very hard thorns.”
Two men went inside the jungle with their axes. Ten minutes later, they brought out many branches of the plant. Now we could hear another truck approaching. Nagbaba estimated we had about ten minutes to finish the task and leave.
The thorny branches were quickly placed in front of the tires. Then one man took the keys and moved the truck just a foot or so. Instantaneously, many punctures erupted in all six tires.
I told the driver, “Tell your boss to have staff that have better manners, else next time thorns will cause more harm.” Then we walked away and vanished from the view. Out of curiosity, we watched the scene from a distance hidden in the tree cover. We sat there for about an hour. Now there were four trucks, lined up as there was no space for U turn or crossing. Even going in reverse was tricky due to load and turns.
Leaving the drama, we turned back to village. I said, “I had read in childhood that an ant can bring down an elephant. Now I have seen the demonstration.”
Nagbaba had a different take. He said, “God has created solutions for every problem. Now we can ask them to stop illegal operations.”
I said, “I don’t think God had imagined such problems and thought through. These guys cannot be dissuaded so easily by disrupting their tires.” Nagbaba looked at me questioningly, while others listened as we walked.
I clarified, “See you have lived in forests and think like the ways of forest. But these creatures outside are very different. They negotiate and act till they find a temporary solution. Then they reset their goals and start the process again.”
I explained, “When a tiger fights, it will have a single goal in its mind and will not negotiate. If it is losing a fight, it may retreat but it won’t keep the fight for another day or choose a different ground to fight. But Sardars won’t act like that. If they don’t have a solution to thorns, they will try to negotiate. If our terms are not satisfactory to them, they will accept a temporary solution but bide their time to hurt us elsewhere. It will help them get back to this position. This achievement will be short lived and more harmful if we press too hard.”
One man asked, “Bhaiya where did you learn all this?”
I said, using the moment for some personal brownie points, “In school I went to, such things are taught. It is called game theory. But I can say now that this is the first genuine usage of that course. Let us see if I pass.”
We continued our conversation till the village. It was quite a fun for them. First of all, it was beyond belief that subjects like negotiations existed. Then this concept of pass or fail was quite amusing. They were used to eight fail or tenth fail as the highest qualifications. Pass was a sign that one had to study more.
I stayed in the village for that night also, and had a feast of baati and brinjals.
Nagbaba told me, “Bhaiya, whatever happens (after the truck incident), I will ask them to talk to you. Whatever you decide, we will follow.” I said, “Let’s act foolish as we are quite weak. We should not let them know of our deep concerns. It should look like a rash and emotional act.”
Next morning, we woke up before dawn. The thatched roof of the hut was leaking at many places as it rained heavily. Soaked in water, we sat quietly in a corner and watched the lightening terrify the whole area at intervals. Some strikes were quite close to the village.
Aware of the pleasant surprise we were going to get, Lakshmi brought hot tea. While everything was wet, she had carefully kept the mud choolah, matches and the logs covered and dry.
More than the tea, I enjoyed the wide grin on her face. She asked, “How is it?” I replied, “The best tea in the world.” She blushed and hurried back to hide behind the only wall in the hut.
I asked Nagbaba, “Has the lightening ever struck a hut?” He grinned and said, “No, it will not strike the huts.”
He knew my unease with such illogical answers and teased me with a silence, till I asked, “Why so?” Tilak intervened, “It falls only on those who sin.” He said with conviction.
“By that logic, we two are the only targets here,” I said. Tilak's conviction in his theories made him uneasy. I had a point.
Nagbaba explained, “The god gave us Mahua tree to absorb all our sins. The lightening will fall only on a Mahua tree if one is around. We have so many of them around the villages.”
That satisfied both of us. His unease vanished while I found some logic. Later on, I found out that Mahua tree was a close cousin of the lightening conductor rod, but often got damaged in the process of lightening strike.
After dawn, things eased. The lightening didn’t feel so ominous. By ten a.m. the rains also eased. We left the village for return journey, stopping on the way at Mr.Thakur's office.
I got an appointment with him easily. He had a relatively free day.
I gave an account of the court decision and thanked him. He said, “All I can do in this position is to remain fair and avoid being under influence.”
Then I told him about the missing person report made for Tulsi. He could not understand my commitment to this cause. In his view, wherever she would be, it would be her choice.
It was one of the many instances in my interactions with those in bureaucratic service where I felt they had lost touch with the gory realities of weak and poor people's life. I didn’t feel that they were insensitive, but that acknowledgment of basic problems was an ego issue for them. The beggars at stations, lost children, and young girls at bars were nothing but symbols of systematic problems to them, who spoilt their pride.
I told him what I had learnt from Dau about the human trafficking business and how Tulsi and Muniya were at risk. I said, “Sir, one jolt will put them within the grasp of mafia. All we want to do is to reconnect with them and give them an option to return and not drift like this.”
He said, “Alright, I will ask an officer to track the case. But there is not much hope. We are already stretched doing normal policing.”
I had Dau's advice at the back of my mind. I said, “We will need your favor in case we find her. Local policemen under influence may try to prevent our meeting her. For now, I need your help in some combat training to a few tribal boys, just in case some street fights happen.”
He smiled and said, “Do you feel that you will ask me for any favor and I will help?”
I said, “I just had some telepathy that sent me here and made me ask for favors without fear. I feel that you don’t want me to fail.”
He nodded and said, “As long as you remain on the right side. You already walk a tight line if you meet folks like Dau.” After a pause, he continued, “I will arrange for training unofficially in Pachmarhi. You let me know when the men can come for a week.”
I said, ‘Thanks. I will send them in the week after next.” Then he said, “I also need a favor from you. Do not help this Dau in any manner.” I nodded in agreement. I told him I owed money to Dau that I intended to repay. Beyond it, I didn’t expect much dealing with Dau.
Without my asking, he said, “You may not know but many folks do. I had joined as a Trainee in Pipariya, at the beginning of my career. I had zealously stopped Dau’s illegal sand mining and toll collections. One day, Dau's sons barged in my office, grabbed my collar and insulted me. I complained to my seniors but they could not do much then, as Dau was on the ruling party side.. Now I won’t finish him.”
I did not know the story. But now I understood why he was posted here. He was being used by the current establishment to settle his score and help them. Perhaps, it was another reason why Dau could not influence my case investigation. I nodded in agreement. Then I asked, “But now you have folks like Sardars who are not better than Dau?’
He said, “One at a time. That’s all I can say.” So he was going to overlook Sardars' activities as long as his posting remained here. Most probably, the Sardars were going to get him transferred when the purpose was met. For now, it meant that Sardars' illegal trucks did not trouble the administration. It was futile to mention them.
Then he commented, “You seem to have changed a lot since we met last. Looks like you have learnt to cope up with this system.” I replied, “I understand now that everything has a transcendental nature.” I took his leave, and we drove back to Bhopal.