Meanwhile, monsoon had filled our dams. It was early September and many streams still overflowed to erode the truck paths. Vedi frequently got upset with the loss of revenues he was suffering.
He called on my cell, “Didn’t you know that the stop dam overflows will erode the paths? Can you pay for the losses we are incurring? After creating this mess, now you have left this idiot in charge of truck operations. He doesn’t have a clue what is to be done.”
Then he shouted, “I also have full information. That fellow Tilak is now trying to bypass us and become direct supplier of mines.”
It was false information fed to Vedi. It alarmed me. Someone was playing with Vedi’s insecurities. It could be any one of them, from Dau to Raja.
I hardened and said, “I have no such information. I don’t have reasons to believe it also. Regarding the truck movement, in my knowledge mining and felling is banned in monsoons. So anyways, the trucks cannot operate.”
I continued, “Once monsoons are over, only legal permits should be plying. No one will hinder it.”
He said, “No one should tell me how many trucks to ply and when to ply them.”
I said, “Then don’t get agitated. You are free to operate directly, and do as you please. I can help you only ply legal trucks.”
He hung up. I called Tilak and informed him about the misinformation being spread. Vedi had also called Tilak. The duo had been unreserved in exchanging threats. He said, “Bhaiya, he condition is like a fish put of water.”
I cautioned, “Don’t be too relaxed. His big brother crocodiles might also be around.”
Vedi had also approached Nagbaba. He got a placid response. He tried to buy out Bajrang and team but nothing worked. Then he tried the Thakur card.
Mr.Thakur called me, “What can be done about Vedi's problem?”
I said, “Breaking the stop dams is not an option anyone can risk now. It will upset the entire villages. What else can we do? Anyhow, he gets the permit for one truck and extracts three. Who can help him in this?”
He smiled, “You will get me transferred before my term. Many folks from top to bottom share a percentage in each truck.”
I said, “Then our starting position should be no trucks - legal or otherwise. Once we negotiate, we will agree to keep the legal ones on, as long as you remain the mediator.”
He laughed, “We will see. But be cautious.”
Another two weeks went by. I kept precautions, had a couple of companions from Bajrang's team around me all the time. But I knew this phase would pass quickly. We had reached the limits of our positional boundaries vis a vis all other parties. Going further held no meaning to us, but the current state had to be settled.
I remembered a scene from National geographic when a hippo had to settle down in a small pond full of other hippos. The other ponds had dried up. The process was quite tense for all the hippos. Failure of the lone hippo meant losing the battle for survival. Once negotiated, the situation remained stable till next disruption, or another one came.
With intense mediation from many folks including Thakur, a new normal was agreed upon. We continued our say in operating them and henceforth we were to follow only the permitted truck limits. The restoration work of the truck paths was started, as overflow had stopped.
In late October, the festivities had started cross the rural landscape. As the temperatures dipped, the use of Mahua and other wines took off. People would invite each other for a feast. Tilak had many such invitations from Bhopal to Sohagpur. I had instructed him not to drink too much, and divulge his day plan to anyone. But he was always living in on the edge.
That evening also, he had an invite for a party at a dhaba. His close friend from Bhopal had come. Shafiq also joined them. At ten at night, news came to village that Tilak's condition was not good and had been admitted to the Sohagpur hospital. From there, he was taken to the Hoshangabad hospital.
By the time, we reached Hoshangabad, it was midnight. He was long dead, and so was his friend. Both their bodies had gone for postmortem; the cause appeared to be poisoning.
Shafiq sat silent. He was saved as he never had alcohol.
The usual suspect in such cases was adulterated wine, which had methanol formation. But the post mortem did not show methanol. The laboratory there had no further testing facilities. We arranged for a knowledgeable doctor and expert in toxins to visit Hoshangabad immediately.
By morning, he assessed the cause to be a toxin found in Dhatura, a poisonous fruit. Tilak had been set up and given that in the drink. We kept the information tightly secret. Only I, Shafiq and Mr.Thakur knew the real toxin that caused it. The world knew it a severe case of food poisoning. Mr.Thakur privately investigated the plot, and if any poison trail could be found.
The last rites and cremation were planned for the afternoon in the village. There was a small place by the river that was used as a cremation ground. There was sadness all around, Tilak had been their hero. But Shafiq was inconsolable. He didn’t have any other reference to the world. He was a silent guy but very emotionally attached to Tilak.
As soon as the cremation was over, Shafiq went away to Bhopal. I retired in Nagbaba's hut. The loss was a big blow to our cause. Tilak’s aimless life was a great shield, it made him beyond negotiations.
Two days later, I went with Nagbaba, Raju mama, Sooraj and a few others to Narmada River in Hoshangabad. There we performed puja and relieved the remains in the river. From there, I went to Mr.Thakur’s office in the afternoon, while others waited.
Mr.Thakur quickly shared the summary of his team's findings. They had tried to connect the dots between various events, persons, cell phones, their movement and addresses.
In the end of the summary, he said, “Boss, this Sooraj character looks more than suspicious. He is a common link between many lines that we draw.”
I remembered the conversation with Sooraj in January, before I had left for Delhi. It was also clear to us now that he had been getting easy money, and enjoying life. He had turned a blind eye to perils of letting his brain be controlled by likes of Dau and Sardars.
How did it happen? First they had worked on his fears about the case. Then they had given him options and a simple work of being a mole. He was also paid well. They also lured him with the thought of being the head of our Trust. Once I and the villagers gave more importance to Tilak, they had used his small man's ego. He burnt with the insult of being lower to Tilak in the trust hierarchy.
I guessed that Sooraj had been turning blind to his own missteps by reasoning it as necessary for the Trust's well being, and hence taking a high moral ground. That was being fed to his mind.
I treated it as my failure. I had enough exposure now to understand this part of human ego and fear but I had not foreseen that someone as wise as Sooraj would fall. Now it could not be undone. It had to be handled calmly.
After coming out of Mr.Thakur’s office, I took aside Nagbaba and briefed him about it.
On our way back, we stopped for a tea break, at the Majnu dhaba. From here, Raju mama was to go to his farm. He got a call on his cell, and looked alarmed. He rushed to me and said, “Bhaiya, move immediately from here.”'
I asked him, “What happened?”
Simultaneously, I got a call from Mr.Thakur's office. His assistant had called. He said, “Be on your alert. There is some shootout near Hoshangabad. We don’t know much details or persons involved yet.” Then he hung up.
But Raju mama had more details; his rural rumor network was very fast. He said, “Someone had entered Vedi's office and shot everyone there. This was about an hour ago.”
My thoughts went to Dau. He was going after an all out war for control, instead of living at others command.
Tilak was out, and now Sardars' main representative was out. Most likely, we were also the in his list. He would have got our day's plan from Sooraj. But we escaped as we went to Mr.Thakur's office from the river. Still we were not out of danger. That's how even Mr.Thakur would have seen the events and warmed me.
The danger was shared with everyone. I looked at Sooraj, he seemed struggling with many thoughts, probably realizing his utility was over to Dau and others and he was surely going to be hit.
Agitated by the news, Bajrang and a few others got ready to fight it out. He said, “Bhaiya, whatever happens now is beyond us. Let us take as many men as possible to Dau's palace and finish this saga once and for all.”
I said, “Let’s have all the information. I can be completely wrong.”
We decided to reach the temple and wait there to get more news. But to be unpredictable and safe, we were going to stay in the bushes. Raju Mama wanted to go back to his home but was asked to come with us. He would not have been safe there and we would have lost the source of quick updates. His cell frequently rang and news evolved.
Now it had changed a bit. Only one gunman of Vedi had died while another was injured but was out of danger. Vedi himself had escaped and his whereabouts were not known.
The rumors estimated two or three assailants. But it looked that they were not professionals. They had not achieved anything and spent a lot of bullets in Vedi’s office.
We reached the temple and stayed there. I called Mr.Thakur's office and got an update. Based on all eyewitness and statements from injured gunman, it appeared that only one person was involved. His description matched Shafiq's.
My heart sank. The possibility of threat from Dau now looked nonexistent, but this news made me sad. On the contrary, others heaved a sigh of relief, and some folks like Raju mama had a sense of elation.
In another half an hour, more news poured in. Raju mama announced, as if relaying a real time commentary, “There is a shootout that happened at Dau' place.”
Shafiq's end looked certain to me.
In an hour, more details were out, with some additional claims by each person who relayed them. This time, one assailant had attacked but had automatic guns. Such guns were not available easily as police tightly kept a check. Shafiq could not have possessed them by any means. Now my hopes rose. Probably, the earlier attack also had nothing to do with him. Vedi and Dau anyhow had many other enemies; anything could happen.
By late night, it was confirmed it was Shafiq. He had attacked Vedi's office first. From there he snatched their automatic guns. Then he quickly rode a bike to Dau's palace. There, his madness drove off the hired village goons. Three of four were shot and left injured, but one had died. Then he had sprayed Dau' brother with bullets. Dau' one son was hit but was alive. He had been taken to Hoshangabad for operation.
Shafiq had escaped, some said he was hit and injured. But no one could be believed as most villagers created news, one trying to hype the others out.
Next morning, I started for the hospital in Hoshangabad. I had Bajrang and others with me. They were not too happy with this move as they hated Dau for many reasons, recent one being Tilak.
On our way to the hospital, Bajrang asked, “Bhaiya, why do you give any importance to Dau now?”
I explained, “Dau's reign is over now. But I don’t want him and his family or anyone to live in our fear. If we don’t show our face now, the affected folks won’t see the truth.”
Even Mr.Thakur did not like my going to console Dau. Mr.Thakur’s long hidden purpose was almost achieved.
More than twelve hours had passed since the event. But Dau had not allowed anyone to make a police complaint. But the event’s magnitude and the usage of gun gave a free hand to Mr.Thakur. In the name of investigation, he turned Dau's palace into his camp office. He laid his hands on all records, illegal money, and searched his diaries.
To preserve his situation, Dau had acted immediately. Overnight, he changed his political equations and loyalties. As a result, Mr.Thakur was asked to monitor law and order while his senior sent another team to Dau's palace. It is said that government recovered only some land documents and some guns. But as per Raju Mama's narration, many boxes full of gold were quietly moved at night and disappeared. It was the cost Dau had paid to survive and be accepted by his new masters.
I recalled how Nagbaba used to describe the serpents' fragility. One small wound meant their utter demise. In this case, it was a big blow.
But one true good that came out of the whole event. About ten men who worked as bonded labors in Dau's house and were detained in underground lodging at night, saw themselves freed from a lifetime of slavery. May be God had plotted all this to help them.
At the hospital, there were a few of his loyal strongmen. After an initial alarm, they didn’t seem anxious about us. The son was out of danger but had limited paralysis in limbs due to some injury to nerves. He was expected to recover in due time. Dau's wife was sobbing, as were others. Dau was silent. I just sat next to him. Then I came out, as words were not needed.
The event moved out of public interest as quickly as it had happened. The dead and injured were criminals, or known exploiters. The assailant didn’t have a criminal record and looked emotionally disturbed.
Mr.Thakur tracked Shafiq’s movement to Nepal, and then lost interest as other issues took over. He had a severe grouse against his seniors that he was not allowed to unravel Dau's belongings. He would have entangled all of Dau's family in court cases with incriminating evidences. But that was not to be.
Neither his old masters nor the new ones wanted Dau to be pushed so much so that he opens his mouth and brings disrepute to them.
Sardars also didn’t show much interest in the event. Within a few days, a new face was appointed in Vedi's place. This time it was one Khan. Vedi had apparently run away. It was one thing to enjoy power and position, but quite another to face the bloody retaliation. I still didn’t know what system this ‘Sardars’ represented.
Thakur, still nursing his opportunity loss, had played his part in softening the Sardars and their new representative, Khan. He had told them that Nagbaba had a huge supply of madmen like Shafiq and Tilak, and that they were ready to come out any time.
Soon Khan came to the village. This time he was made to meet Bajrang. He renewed the old agreement. Only the legal quota of truck was going to be run now onwards. I instructed Bajrang to get the legal quota from government offices, else Khan may try to forge documents and fool us.
A couple of things needed immediate handling.
First item had to do with strengthening the organization. I felt that even the folks of Bajrang’s generation were now beyond a point where they could see the vast potential that outside market presented. But if they could provide the shield around our current work, then eventually next generation could be educated and trained to use technology and earn from the outside market.
I spent a week with Bajrang and seven others. They were not educated, and hadn’t seen much of outside world, but had good hold on themselves. In simple ways, I tried to train them in situational tactics and leadership. I narrated the situations I had faced and how things functioned. In particular, they were quite interested in the Agarwal's chapter, and asked many questions. With help of Nagbaba and some elders, they were told anecdotes from Ramayana and Mahabharata. They identified with the characters and could relate to moral lessons.
We also decided to make the truck paths more circuitous and tough to negotiate. I told Bajrang and the next line of managers, “At some point of time, they will assess reverting to old methods. It is better that hindrances dissuade them from ditching us. You have to plan each day to overcome their plots.”
My second urgent agenda item was Sooraj. More analysis we did on him, more surprises awaited us. There was a possibility that he had been bought over by Dau even before the first attack. Someone had informed the assailants that we had come back on road the next day. The other possibility was that he had been overcome by Dau or Sardars during the court case trial. Either he was shown the fear of punishment or given easy money. He had never panicked about the outcome, during the brief jail periods. His relaxation tours after the court ruling were funded by someone; otherwise he was not that free with money. Even ruling these possibilities out, it was certain he had set up Tilak.
Despite his foolishness and plots, he had erred in introducing Tilak and Shafiq to me. Things turned out differently between us that what someone must have plotted. Despite their poverty, and situation, these two were not for sale. If it was Dau behind Sooraj and his acts, then Shafiq ending Dau’s reign was a divine act.
In many sessions, it came out that Sooraj’s mental pit was deeper than I first guessed. He still harbored the ambition of controlling the Trust. He had reminded us that how he had overcome all pressure in the jail and remained loyal to us. It was a common way of putting emotional burden.
Finally, I made up my mind to give him a quiet termination from services. To keep him straight, I told him, “Shafiq may not know about your act as long as you remain true to us.” Then he went away.
Mishra ji was clean in his records, but wasn’t required anymore. The trust could employ professional accountant now. Mishra ji understood the turn of events, and left the village. Sooraj and Tilak's places in the trust were now readily taken by Bajrang and Tulsi. Now they did not hesitate in signing documents.
All these events had taken away a month of my time. While Amma and Piya worked normally and the Trust's projects were not affected much, I wanted to get back quickly to my work.
Now only three outsiders remained in the village. It was November and it brought first signs of chilly winter. We three had a dinner invite from Lakshmi. While Lakshmi cooked brinjals for dinner, I shared my thoughts with Nagbaba, “One day, we three should also leave. Those with one leg in the outside world have the potential to steer this effort in the wrong direction.”
Piya said, “Of all people, you talk of leaving this place.” Lakshmi was keenly listening.
I said, “Not now. We still have a lot of work to do but some day we will have nothing more to offer. Then we must leave instead of holding on. But we will take Lakshmi with us.” I added to her delight.
Nagbaba was in agreement with me. But he added, “If you promise to take Lakshmi, then I will be happy. One day, I want her to become like you and return.” I said, “You are placing a huge responsibility on her shoulders. But I agree we need to have more knowledgeable children here.”
He said, “I think her responsibility will be very light. You still have much work left to be done.”
That was the first time he had passed on the village work as mine. It was a strange feeling to hear that, and I was a bit confused about what it meant. He was old and many times did not explain his words but that was no reason for taking him lightly.
In the last week of December 2009, I visited my parents. It had not been so calm for many years. The calm brought out a different facet of their nature. They had forgotten all the hard times.
My father had become much thinner than before but had gained more love for life. He would go to the different weekly markets each day, and bring fish. Then he would take hours to cook it. Sweety would patiently wait for hours for her meal to be ready. And my mother had distinctly become less religious. She would still pray to various Gods and God men each day but would quickly forget them after prayers.
I told her about Amma in our village and her powers. It was my mother's lifetime dream that such a divine person enter her home once. I promised to her to bring Amma once to our home.
Then, I came back to village, just in time to celebrate the New Year arrival. I had bought some Grape wine also.
In the village, New Year arrival held no meaning. It was another change from night to day. But Piya wanted to celebrate it in some way to remember. We had candle light dinner and wine. Many folks joined. It was quite cold. Amma too had become used to Mahua to keep warm. But first time in her life, she tasted a branded grape wine made in vineyards of Nashik. The party that night would be long a part of my memories - the setting, folks and tribal music.
The year also had been eventful but brought more hope for the future. The trust's bank balance now surpassed hundred lacs, with now steady accumulation of over fifteen lacs a month. Every home in the villages had been monitored by the council so that they did not blow away the savings. Amma's bank balance now touched five lacs. It was useless to inform her; such figures were beyond her comprehension.
Coming year looked more promising. In last six months, we had made investments in basic equipments and the immediately reaped the benefits. The subtle marketing of Amma's deeds had also brought good dividends. In addition, I had consistently made inroads in local administration. As long as we did not step on Sardars' toes, the administration had a lot to offer. If a new road was on map and ready for approval, we could also dip our beak in some projects around it. We needed to take care of the share of various stakeholders. Such opportunities multiplied money in a short timeframe if one had a good understanding of demand and supply.
I was not now willing to ignore the dangers now. If someone like Sardar or Dau decided to destroy our world, there were multiple political and administrative alliances that could be made, as long as a good financial motive could be discovered. There was only one savior - unpredictability of our madness. All long as there was a notion that we had too many wild card characters, it kept our fences intact.
In January, Mr.Narsimhan returned to the village. His plan had been approved with due fiscal allocation. Here was a person who moved things in an otherwise slow moving government.
He gave us a map of the new location where the villages was to be moved. It would be across the river and had road connectivity planned. Proper land titles for each household were to be given. There was a land provision for our trust office and temple also.
Now that he had kept his word, it was time to work out our plans. The challenge was that the new place had forest boundary only to the south. To create the same environment so that our herb and chicken revenues were not affected, we planned a year of work. During this time, we would source and plant large mulberry and other trees. The water bodies and canals would also be created; the expense was to be paid by the government. Amma's location also got some permanence. It would be next to a new temple, which would now be owned by the Trust. A team was formed with Bajrang to move the physical assets and create new ones.
After due thought, we promised to complete the relocation by the end of 2011. It also meant an year more of truck operations and easy revenues. We had that much time to scale up our good income to compensate for the reduction once trucks were stopped.