All the Chapters of the Book are now published here.

One can select chapters from the Blog list below.

For Chapters 2 to 6, and 28, please see the August, 2016 section below. Rest of the Chapters are in May, 2020 section below.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Chapter 1. The road to Snake Charmer

What started this unlikely friendship - me and a snake charmer in a remote forest? At that moment, it seemed a small act of fate to save a life. Before long, it became a window for me to see the reducing space and increasing worry of the village poor and marginalized. But one day, it had a greater purpose- to pull me out of enveloping darkness. Then I could see the democracy, politics, crime and the system through the looking glass that the Snake charmer held.
It was September of 2007, a month of significance for many reasons. My paths were going to change forever. Just a couple of months back, I had left a stable job in a financial products company for creating a business that I believed in. But later this month, I would take a long sabbatical in various hospitals, after an accident and forewarning of more to come. And by and by, the financial world shall soon nosedive, bringing another challenge to my own finances and the plans.
To the Snake Charmer, also known as Nagbaba, these were small changes in a rather stagnant world.
On Sunday, the last day of September, a month when everything in Satpura ranges becomes picturesque, I was returning from Pipariya to Bhopal along with my office assistant, Sooraj. Pipariya is a small town, south east of Bhopal. 
Pipariya is just over one hundred and forty kilometers from Bhopal but seems much longer due to ghat sections.

On the way to Bhopal from Pipariya, one crosses the edge of Satpura ranges that run parallel to the highway twenty kilometers to its south.  One has to go for sixty kilometers west to reach Hoshangabad, the administrative headquarters of the area. This town is around eighty kilometers south of Bhopal. In Hoshangabad, one meets the Narmada River in all its beauty.  From here, one has to drive cautiously as the roads are treacherous till Bhopal, crossing densely forested mountains and rivers to reach the other side.
The Pipariya to Hoshangabad section of the highway is loved by anyone who had been on it once. It is a straight, smooth road and has beautiful farms or orchards on either side. In each season, it has a different color.  I vividly remember golden of wheat in summers, red of palash just before monsoons, grass green in monsoons and dark green of winters. All along the journey, Narmada flows in North at a distance of twenty kilometers from the road. In the South lie the Satpura peaks, the Satpura Tiger reserve and the Pachmarhi Bio-diversity Park, roughly twenty kilometers south into forest.
The whole belt is the hub of forest and grain produce - one of the best in India. As a result, it attracted traders and corporate wars.  Pipariya is calm and beautiful to the outsider but the trade control is governed by criminals sponsored by their political patrons.
My project here was to set up a supply chain, comprising of warehouses and cold storages. It would help our retail trading operations. As we were starting from scratch, and with a new age business, we had no reasons to worry about politicians or traders who had entrenched interests. My team was a well educated and trained one, as I understood it then. 
Strangely, they don't teach the business of politics, mafia and religion at any major school- a business that runs our country. They also don't teach that a will of a powerful man is an unseen entry barrier much harder than those that laws or brands can construct. Probably, the professors don't know or probably they depend on such men for their monthly checks.
Unaware or undaunted by the lurking shadows, as a free spirit and noble intention should be, my team started on its course to set up a farmer network and supplies. Our dream was to root out the hefty supply chain inefficiencies and provide a market linked price at the storage site itself.
I used to visit the project site twice a month; driving from Bhopal for the reviews , in my Maruti small car. On my return that day along with my assistant, we decided to take a night's break at the Satpura National Park gate. We turned left on the highway, at the signboard pointing towards Satpura National Park gate. The gate is a misnomer- after about Twenty kilometers ride, there is no gate. There is a large water body that has to be crossed on a boat and serves as the gate. Ten kilometers into the drive and thick forests start. We reached the water body at around 4 pm but it was too late to get an entry to the other side. The spot was surrounded by a small village of tribals - who seemed more like rural folks. The place is called Madai. An arrangement for the night stay was worked out in one of the small hut resort. And we got down to absorbing the scenery. While we settled to tea on a higher ground, a young elephant, belonging to the Forest guards, was enjoying itself in the water bank on the other side of the water body.
Soon the sun went down and a roof of stars came out. I had never seen so many stars in the city night. One 'kadaknath', a local variety of chicken, was being roasted for us, in front of us. And we were thinking numbers - this project shall generate some Five million rupees this year, and once we get farmer networks going, it will mean nothing less than two hundred million.
Greed, not so much of money in this case but of achievement and whatever accompanies it blinds one to what cannot be seen. I had a question that many investment partners had no answer to - why has no one done it before?  It was plainly lucrative, and the local businessmen had enough money for sugar plants, why can’t they do something both profitable and poverty alleviating. I posed the same to Sooraj, but he was clueless.
In the midst of our conversation, the tribal host joined with Chicken - "Babuji (sir), you are the first tourist after the monsoons". I replied "See we are locals now - you will see us often as we are setting base in Pipariya".
I described our project to him. Our small car and its status troubled him "You are good people, and you will meet big folks in your work. You should do a smaller project or get a big car to show." His ways of the world amused me; he only saw our car but not the education and potential. Anyhow, he advised us to park the car behind his hut.
Sometimes, I wish now he was wrong. But he was simple and simple folks can be shortsighted but seldom wrong.
By 10 pm, we had finished the Chicken completely and had quickly dozed off to sleep under the sky. Our bed was a Charpoy without any cushion but it was comfortable. Around an hour later, a Scorpio SUV with four flashlights came in the village. It was normal as sometimes the tourists got late on the road and arrived later than they had planned. The tribals are very alert folks and the voices travel across village like a flash.
Our host woke me up, “Babuji, they are asking for you”. I never knew this vehicle and the folks, nor did my assistant. It was not a police or government vehicle. Instantaneously, I thought that they might have been following from the start and lost our trail as we had turned inside. The tribal host knew my mind. I told him, “I don’t want to meet these folks in this dark and here." He said that they will soon be guided here. The choice was simple - to escape back to road - 18 kilometers to Highways and then 100 kilometers to Bhopal. And once on highway, we will find lots of company. However, our tribal host was against it. He said that the company on road will be more unsafe than folks here - at least tribal villagers here won’t care for the reputation of these folks, though they fear police. And going 18 kilometers in our small car on a potholed road against their vehicle was a sure way of meeting them midway in the forest. They would soon catch up.
We had two options- one: to meet them here and my host and a few other tribals will be there, or as my host suggested , "You leave this place in your car but there will be right diversion of the road after 3 kilometers, you must take that, leave the car after a kilometer as there will be no road after that- there will be a small village named Bichua. From there, you have to go on foot for 5 kilometers to next village deep inside the forests. When you leave the car, wake up some tribal villager and tell him that you need to see the Nagbaba (Snake Charmer). Ask him to take you there urgently. They will protect your car and someone from village will accompany you for the 5 kilometers trek."
I had to choose quickly on instincts. I decided to go. I wanted to trust the tribal's instincts. He was more comfortable with this choice. Probably, it saved my life.

We left immediately on the serpentine road away from Madai. Around 3 kilometers on our way, from a higher altitude, just before we took right on interior road and left the main approach road to Madai, we could see four flashlights of the vehicle starting from the village we had just left. The road ahead was very rough, with big potholes but there was no wet soil. Soon we saw around 20 huts, the next village our host had mentioned. Though, it was late at night, 
around ten men- all tribals were playing bets and were drunk with Mahua. One came close and thinking that we are lost, told us to turn back to reach the road. I explained to him that we need to park the car safely and need to reach the Nagbaba fast. His name was Revaram. He guessed that we needed a snake bite remedy and quickly asked us to leave the car there itself. And brought out his bullock cart. He said we won’t be able to see in the dark on that forest road, and by cart it will take less than an hour.
In a flash, we were in a bullock cart, in a dense forest and dark night, a darkness I had seen the for first time, going to meet a sort of a fellow we only ridiculed and feared as children, and that too with some assurance that it will be safe. Faith travels faster than light and much faster when faced with adversity and uncertainty.
When we had started, I told my assistant that if nothing, this fellow will at least have a few snakes to scare folks off. And tribals trust him so outsiders won’t create nuisance here.
Suddenly on the cart, the faith of our host tribal in the Snake Charmer had given us the critical confidence that was enough to pass that night. And we were minutes away from the home of this Snake Charmer.

Putting our fate in someone's hand is so difficult for a person like me. It’s much easier to have a false sense of choice and control. In that cart, on a dark night in a dense forest, I had a comforting feeling that after all, the choice was mine.
It was roughly 1 am. The cart moved slowly as we felt the sudden climbs and drops on the path several times. It was a bit rocky at times.  But the bullocks were self assured and moved at a steady pace.
The darkness around started to have its affect- some self doubt on our choice which seemed fair a few minutes ago, some doubt on the cart owner and where he was taking us.
That is what dark periods in life do to you- they take away the self belief and trust on everything around.
Later, I discovered another thing about darkness in life. When it’s dark, you can't look around. We had presumed that we were in a hostile forest. The following day would reveal a more comforting view.
When things are bad in life, we are not able to see that it’s not so bad; all the good things around are hidden from our view.
I tried again to see if my cell phone had any network signal. If I could get one bar, it would solve a lot of problems. This is what I thought then. Today, I doubt if that bar could have done anything. But I knew that in a few hours, my parents in Bhopal will get worried about our disappearance.
My mind was working fast to understand everything. I had no enemies. The meeting last month with the local MLA was cordial and he was happy with our project in this area. He had asked me to meet Dau Patel, a person respected and feared in that area. Dau meant elder in local dialect; his real name was Laxman.
I understood that such a person can be very territorial and this Patel, with his illegal turnover, was bigger than many listed companies. But to me, we had no visible conflict. He had wanted a cut in profits, and the cut looked too small for his stature. But I had declined politely with reasons. In lieu, he had wanted some low level jobs for people associated with him, which I had accepted on conditions of fitness.
For a few other things demanded, like buying seeds, fertilizers etc from the suppliers suggested by him, I had the cover of bank conditions to hide behind.
Later last month, I had heard that his opponents were happy with my decision to 'independently' source, but were unhappy with our openness to interview his folks for three or four open vacancies worth a couple of thousand rupee salary. That was about it when it came to any discord with anyone that I could recall. Since then things had been smooth.
Suddenly, 15 minutes into the cart, Sooraj, my assistant asked, “Bhaiya, why are we here?”
I felt like punching him with all strength but he was all I had. “What the hell are you have been with me since the morning?” I retorted.
I was not sure why he asked that; but my reaction came with some irritation deep inside, one that shows when our sub-conscious knows our fears.
Sooraj said, “No, I meant we don't even know for sure if that Scorpio was chasing us, or the tribals have set us up for loot. Why was that fellow not supporting our choice of escaping to the highway? Now we are even away from the car.”
My irritation was valid. Everything that seemed wise could turn out to be harmfully foolish.
Just then, we heard the sound of a vehicle horn. By then, we would have gone around 1 kilometer from where we had left the car. In a forest, sounds travel very far and unless one knows the forest, it’s difficult to make out where it’s coming from.
It looked like that the Scorpio folks had realized we didn’t go on the road. They must have gone for around ten kilometers on the road - not finding us ahead and not catching us on the forest road must have made them conclude that we had taken some diversion, and this one was most obvious one.
If that was the case, then they would have seen the car and now they knew for sure we had gone inside.
This sound made us decide that we were on right course, going away from that Scorpio. Whosoever was inside that vehicle was on our trail.
The bullocks continued their walk unaware of our worries. At two places, Revaram asked us to get down to cross streams on foot. Every time, he gave us a choice to get down, it built our confidence. That’s what a little freedom does.
The second stream was quite broad, almost a hundred feet. It was not more than a foot deep and flowed gently. Revaram explained, “Babuji, from here dense forests start.”  We had gone for about two kilometers. That made us a bit stiff and tense.
We could ease, after twenty minutes or so, as we got accustomed. I asked Revaram about the Snake Charmer “Do many people come here?”
He replied, “No Babuji. But only once or twice a year when tribals have village functions, we see outsiders here to meet him”.
Another thing was comforting both of us - we were being called 'babuji' by everyone. They were treating us someone they were comfortable with.
When a government officer or some other similar exploiter speaks to them, tribals show more respect by calling him 'Sir' or 'Sahab'. But deep down there is resentment or distrust. It is a forced respect.
My global exposure and Sooraj's poverty ridden childhood had given both of us one common thing - a belief in equality of humans.
The cart chugged along the remaining distance. Suddenly I could hear a snake flute like instrument being played distantly.   “That is Nagbaba's snake gourd (flute)”, said Revaram.
“Is he awake at this hour?” My alarm rang again.  Revaram said, “If he has foreknowledge that you are coming, he might be awake.” I had heard about snake charmers having a sense of things to come.
The music of the peculiar flute was familiar to both of us. I had childhood memories of snake charmers who used to spread out on each street on Nagapanchami day, though none of them came to town from such remote areas. Those days in the city, almost twenty years ago, the music of a charmer’s flute could be heard at least a kilometer away. It alerted all children and women arousing some mystic and mortal fear.
Tonight, it was sounding like life giving music to me.
I once more tried to look behind to check but it was too dark. For some reason, the Scorpio folks seemed to have not followed us.
When the cart reached the Nagbaba's hut, a little girl opened the gate. It was a small compound. The boundary was made of thorny dried shrubs. To the left, there were a few cows. There were four more guards to check us out - three dogs, thin like street ones, and a cat.
Revaram spoke to the girl and then walked towards the open place just before the hut to find a place to lie down. The girl asked us to sit on a charpoy in the verandah. The verandah was an open balcony, roughly two feet above the ground. It opened into a room - the only room in the hut. Rest was all open from four sides with a thatch roof above.
She gave us water and then went inside the room to inform her Baba, the snake charmer. We could hear her voice, "They have come". 
He came out - it was a huge disappointment. We had travelled this far, on faith to find a very ordinary, thin, half naked fellow. I had expected more men around, someone strong and visibly more influential. After all the superficial change the mind had undergone, I was still measuring using the yardsticks that the world used.
He was dark, looked bent with old age, and had just a thin white cloth wrapped around his lower half. He had stubble -half grey, oval face with many lines on cheeks around the eyes, betraying his old age.
We stood up in courtesy. He shook hands with us, in our manner, and asked us to sit on the charpoy. He sat on the ground in front of us. The Snake charmer asked Revaram for a 'bidi' and match box. Revaram produced one from pocket. He bid Revaram to go and sleep, and then he asked, “Are you entering the forests for the first time?” I said, “Yes”.
“Then it must be some experience for you”, he said.  We both smiled. For all the anti-climax of our expectations, we were fine as this man was warm, had a family with animals, and seemed simple and content. His voice had a calm assurance about being in full control of things around him.
He said, “Welcome to my small hut. I was very worried for you when the second vehicle came to Revaram's village. I hoped you don't delay on the way. When the vehicle turned back and I knew you had started on the cart, I relaxed and went to sleep.”
It looked like a day of puzzles. What this man said just now didn't make sense to me.  He seemed amused at our thoughts. I still asked, “Are you sure they won’t come here?”
He said, “They won’t come this way without informing. If they try, I will know when they are five kilometers away. Please don’t worry tonight. Tomorrow you can plan to go back.”  Then he disappeared inside. I eased myself on the charpoy while Sooraj slept on the ground.  For some reason, we had enough peace of mind for a sound sleep.

----End of Chapter 1----

Chapter 48. A New Journey ahead

As it was planned, I visited the village trust regularly. Things had changed a lot.
We let the Amma’s court continue with her statue; and the marketing company continued doing a good job.  The thought was that the younger generation, once educated would not fall for blind faith anyhow. So we need not fear that effect so much. On the other hand, the earnings would allow more children to be sent to costly institutions.
Bolstered by the sale of the lands that the trust had accumulated, and the continuing income, the Trust’s funds now had crossed ten hundred lacs. It was more than enough to fund many children’s aspirations.  We started giving away donations to very needy folks who came to see Amma’s statue.
My work and travel had gradually increased as I interacted with many intellectuals. The impact of modern media and internet was for all to predict but I felt that fundamental research was going to help our cause much more.  I felt that a new set of opportunities were going to come our way as the world had lost a lot of natural habitats and lands.  The cost of proteins and many other naturally occurring molecules was going to go up. We had preserved the environment to grow many of the high quality foods, and herbs.
But when it came to extracting molecules or for scaling up our work, the technology was not available in the entire country. When imported, it came very costly, and the training itself required skills which we could not hire locally.  I started working on setting up a laboratory for research on our ecological diversity and wealth – but getting any scientist to work here was a challenge.
These present challenges apart, some day we would have access to all the technology and at much lower cost. Till then, we had to persevere.
Nagbaba’s health had deteriorated fast in last few months, out of old age. He had become very skinny and used a stick as a support while walking. Mentally he was still quite agile and his eyes had that twinkle.
In my last visit in October, we sat down one night with Mahua, and wild chicken; he still had appetite left for it.
Across the path was Tulsi’s compound. Their lights were still on.  Muniya was now eleven and had become responsible. Rehan was ten and much healed. Bihu had become five and was a much quieter child.  We could hear three children playing and making loud noises, with Tulsi shouting at them to go to sleep. It was music to our ears. 
Nagbaba showed me a tin box. It had my name on it, and was locked. He told Lakshmi, “When I am gone, give the boxes to the named persons.”
I said, “I have got everything I need. You don’t leave anything for me.”
He said, “How do you know I am giving anything to you? I may be asking for something.”
I said, “Then you can ask while you are alive.”  He said, “It’s possible to refuse to a living person.”
I said, “Okay, As you wish.”
Many such conversations happened in the coming months.
On the morning of February 26th, 2015, I got a call from the village. Nagbaba had passed away in sleep. I sat silent in my study room for an hour. All of us took the flight to Bhopal, and then drove from there. We reached the village by evening.
Lakshmi was inconsolable while others were calm. Passing of Nagbaba symbolized the end of an era for the villages. He had been their Nagbaba for last sixty years. They were waiting for us to arrive before performing the last rites.
We went to our old settlement. It had become dense forest now but our old open areas remained.  Next to the river bank, he was cremated. Lakshmi performed the last rites.
A lot of visitors came to the village upon getting the news – they included Dau, many officials, Mr.Thakur, Khan, Raja, Raju Mama and many others. Amma also came and stayed till the thirteenth day.
Once I had valued in my mind how much economic value he protected as a self appointed custodian of natural systems. Just the teak in hundreds of acres, and sandalwood in forest around, came to a billion dollars in market value. It belonged to entire humanity, but would had been long gone, cut and smuggled, if left to exploitation.
After all visitors had gone back, we held a gathering. It had many folks from different villages.
One old man asked, reflecting everyone’s worry, “Bhaiya, now we don’t have Nagbaba, and he has left without appointing a successor. Amma has also left this place. Who will guide us?”
Nagbaba had prepared me for this, in our many conversations about the world. I said, “Nagbaba will be pained to hear your question. Any leader is like a father or a mother. The only noble objective they have is that their subjects or children do not feel their absence when they are gone. Nagbaba Bhairav only worked for that. With time, a new Nagbaba and a new Amma will come, serve their duty and go. But you must judge them by the objective they have. One who believes in one’s own importance is going to take us down the wrong path.”  
After a long pause, I continued, “Once, I was distraught and had asked Nagbaba about what should guide us at all times. He explained to me that it was the Dharma. Dharma stood for its four principles – Truthfulness, Compassion, Cleanliness and Austerity. If we follow the four principles, God will help us progress each day. The true guide lives inside each one of us. Nagbaba explained that to me. This was his guide, and that guide remains with us.”
Then I explained to them the picture of Saraswati (knowledge), Lakshmi (wealth and progress) and Ganapati (welfare). If One of them was missing in our deeds and thoughts, the others would eventually leave.  This was going to be our guide in all works.
The villagers were rejuvenated. Then we had a vivid discussion on how these principles worked to create progress, wealth and knowledge.
The next day, seven of us gathered at Nagbaba’s hut – Myself, Lakshmi, Tulsi, Bajrang, and  two elders and one young trustee. The purpose was to open the boxes.  There were four small tin boxes – One for Lakshmi, Two for me and one for Tulsi.  One by one they were opened.
In one box, he had gifted some silver jewelry and other small valuables to Tulsi. The box for Lakshmi contained his hand woven silk clothes meant for Lakshmi’s marriage, apart from some Gods’ idols meant for her good fortune.
In one box given to me, there were original books and diaries. They had been meant for the Trust’s library storage but we had kept only copies there. The originals were now given to my custody.
The second box was locked – it was the one he showed to me some months back. The lock was broken. It had his personal fortune – his snake Gourds, the tiger claw, horns and stones that were passed on from one generation to another.  I silently surveyed the items while the gathering looked on. There was a note also he had got written by someone else.  The note read: ‘May God help you in your path.’
He had appointed the Thirty sixth Nagbaba.
Now running away from the responsibility or living it was my choice - there was no chance of reversing his act, nor anyone was there to question what I did with it. I used to think and worry about the Trust and villages’ future all the time, so this act was meant to bind the community to me. It was a brave decision to put that trust in me – after all I was neither one of them nor survived like one. 
Further, he realized that their society no longer faced dangers from snakes and beasts that lived in forests, but from those who were in human forms. Understanding the complexity of the world and the simplicity of his own villagers, he had decided to pass on the responsibility to me.
I requested all others present as witnesses in the hut to keep this a secret. We needed least distraction to do our current work. I did not want to attract any attention.  For the common knowledge, I had moved away and settled in a different world with a job, with a continuing stake in the Trust’s income.  In my view, I was just another custodian who had to manage the transition to become an advanced society and then hand over the role to someone like Lakshmi or more capable person.
I smiled when I realized that now I was a Snake Charmer also. Both me and Lakshmi, the next prospect in line, were neither trained nor fit for that job. I had to find someone, as villages did need one.
We stayed there in our hut for a many more days. Babu started liking our old hut. Compared to the apartment in Mumbai, this was a heaven for a child. We continued to stay in the village much after all had left. With permission from the Forest officials, I went to see our old village and then the fort along with Bajrang and others. It was still T3’s territory but he didn’t show up; probably disappointed at not finding Nagbaba amongst us. I was sure T3 watched us from some hidden point.
I spent time in organizing the team. Tulsi now looked after Amma’s court’s activities and Bajrang after the brokerage network. The natural products growth was now an organized effort. It had good processes. The Education project and the Research project I monitored directly.  Piya wanted to stay here itself, but I said, “Not yet. We will come back to live here when the time is right. Currently, all the knowledge we need lies far away.” We returned to Thane with Lakshmi. Lakshmi was going to stay with us.
Today, I have finished narrating this phase of my journey.  It is ten at night.
Seven years back, I left this city loaded with false convictions and material dreams. And have come back here again alive and happy but a changed person.  I have bigger responsibilities now and the boat remains small and fragile as before. But I now believe that this world is not about named kings or governments or billionaires but the real beauty and strength in this world lies with the Nagbabas and Shamshers and Chaturvedis and their silent faith.
Many challenges will come in our path, but I know that as long as one remains true to oneself, one need not despair. There will be a Nagbaba waiting somewhere in a forest, or a Amma at the Railway station, or a Tilak or Shafiq on the streets, or a Thakur or Narsimhan in Offices, a Master ji in schools or a Verma ji in courts. That is the power of good karma.
I had been lost in such thoughts. Suddenly, I felt Babu’s little hands wrapped around my neck. The little fellow had silently climbed the chair from behind. It was time for his favorite story.  

Chapter 47. Autowala in Mumbai

The academic project and trust's business kept me occupied for the next half year. But I could not see how to go faster with the development of the younger generation. Even if we could lift a few of the new generation into a new orbit, it would set the path.
But the dream of breaking the entry barriers of elite institutions seemed very difficult. The mediocre path was not in my option list. First was the challenge of knowledge gap. It was partly linked to the fact that all our teachers used the medium as Hindi. But, there was no elite institution in the country that taught in Hindi, even non technology intensive ones like the IIMs. 
We also needed more folks with scientific temper. We could not wish to stay like this till next generation developed that. We needed to show them role models.  
I needed fresh ideas. Now I felt the urge to leave the area and rediscover the world, and forge new friends with different knowledge.  The present level of work was quite settled, and the team and processes were going to be stable for years.  I started transitioning my and Piya’s work to the local heads.
They would report to us on mail, and I planned to visit every month and monitor. Within four weeks, we were ready to move out.
After some research, we settled in Thane near Mumbai in May, 2013. The suburb had all the facilities and suited our low profile lifestyle. It gave me time to observe, read and think about future and also complete this book.
But staying all day on the fourteenth floor was proving too much to handle. The distance with nature was also counter-productive.  After some weeks, I expressed a desire to join some part time work in Mumbai. Piya laughed, “But you won’t last too long in a job now. I know you.”
I said, “There is no harm in trying. At least I will know something in the process.”
I went for many interviews, before settling down in a small consulting firm. The single owner and boss here was Mr. Bhatia. During the interview, he asked, “Why haven’t you done proper jobs for last seven years? By now, your equivalents must be fund managers somewhere.”
My resume had listed the business role at the trust. I had also cited a limitation on the working hours. I answered, “I tried to set up a business but it failed. I had an accident, and then had to shoulder many responsibilities. So I worked for this Trust.”
He said, “You cannot make an honest and successful business out of these poor folks. They have no purchasing power, but they aspire to live like the rich. You can make them buy inferior products at higher margins and buy their good quality produce at thin margins.”
I didn’t say anything. I did not like his attitude but then he was truthful in stating what he thought. He continued, “But I like that you have a different experience than others. I can hire you but don’t expect a salary anywhere closer to a similarly qualified person. Even for fulltime job, I could not have paid more than ten lacs per annum. But for limited hours, I cannot pay more than three lacs. Tell me if you have any issues.”
I said, “Make it three point six lacs. It would be just more than my first post MBA job fifteen years back.” He agreed.
The firm was a local one, and had prominent personalities on its client list. The owner, Mr. Bhatia, was a flamboyant Punjabi fellow. The firm consulted on anything under the sun, from advertisements to financial advice. There were about thirty employees. When any assignment came, all huddled in a conference room and came up with ideas. It was up to the owner to select one idea and then develop that into an action plan.
It was the most unstructured place. What the owner liked about me was that he would pay only for days when there was work for me. But he rated me highly, and took frequent advice. What I liked about the offer was that I could work for half the time. And for two or three days a week, I would go out of the apartment and mingle with the other employees. The diversity of assignments with the firm told me a lot about rich personalities in Mumbai.
A couple of months passed with small tasks. One day, Bhatia called me to the office early. He had been excited about a new assignment. Last night, some major film star had requested him for an advice. This star wanted to pick up advertisements that would make his photo be a part of all rural homes.
In the office, the usual huddle was called for. Various ideas came up. In my turn, I said, “I recommend fairness creams.” A usual laughter followed. It was quite common. But Bhatia was all ears. He said, “It’s already in use by many stars. Where is the scope of one more entering homes?”
I said, “There is no limit to how much people's mind can be played with. They will try each fairness cream with a new hope.  So if even the product is a hit for just two months, our star's purpose is served.”
Bhatia thought for a while. Then he rejected it and moved to a new idea.
About a month later, while watching television at home, I saw a new fairness cream advertisement. It featured the same movie star and targeted the rural audience.
I called Piya, and said, “I gave this advice to Bhatia for the same star. Bhatia could have told me if he was stealing the thought, I would not have bothered.”
Piya laughed aloud. She said, “Welcome to the corporate world. Leave this Bhatia and start your own firm.”
I did follow the first part of advice. But second part was not possible, that wasn’t the reason I was here.
I informed Bhatia on phone about my exit. No explanation was sought or given; he knew the reason.
Piya needled me again, “Whom do you think was better – Dau, Sardar or Bhatia?”
 I said, “You are comparing rotten apples with rotten oranges. But that said, Dau was better – he had the guts to never crib, cry or complain. Dau was a true Rajsik character while Bhatia is primarily a Tamsik character, full of himself.  He has a lot of negative emotions in his head.”
I added after some thought, “I guess Bhatia also hasn’t’ made much money out of my advice; some stronger fellow must have grabbed it leaving Bhatia with crumbs.”
Piya said, alarmed, “I think we should go back to Sohagpur. You will soon start analyzing how it works here.”
I smiled, “You asked me, so I said. Don’t worry; I have better things to do.”
Soon I got another job offer. An old friend from IIT days, who owned a company that brokered Merger & Acquisition deals, offered a role to analyze companies. The domain was limited to companies that had an agriculture or rural business. There was less work and he could market my resume. The fee was going to be a quarter percentage of the deal value I would recommend. It would be paid only if the deal materialized. Targets that could be packaged well were called promising ones; their valuation could be taken to different heights by playing with metrics.
After a couple of non promising targets, my friend assigned a really hot one – A dairy business that had approached him for finding a buyer. I analyzed this dairy business for a month, visiting them frequently. After a month, I told my friend, “Sir, this business has no strategic depth. They have no control over their feed or livestock quality or medical costs. I cannot advice their acquisition.”
He smiled, “Friend, we all know that. I think our private equity clients also will understand it. So let us not worry about it. Once it goes public, the clients will also exit it and make money. But the story has to be created now. We have so many things to write about –how they keep the herd happy, and that their processes are all mechanized, etc. etc.”
I smiled and said, “See they don’t even have enough omega 3 fatty acids in the feed. That is a measurable metric. But how do you measure the happiness of the herd, or the intensity of their fart.”
He laughed, as I did. Then, he said, “I like the new metric you came up with. We will use it somewhere in another business valuation. But on a serious note, we make money only when this deal goes through. Both the buyer and seller are quite intelligent parties; they just need us to package and vet the deal, and market our report to the world. Coming from an educated person like you and me, it would look good.”
I said, “You will have to ask someone else to deal with this one. I am sure anyone will take this - it is a certain fee coming one’s way.”
My friend said, “Ok. I respect that.” Then our association faded. I lost interest in further assignments.
Again, for some weeks, I remained mostly on the fourteenth floor before the outdoor job bug bit me again. Piya asked, “Where will you search now?”
I said, “This time I will try like a less educated guy.”
I roamed around Thane. On advice of an Auto driver, I went to stationery shops near the Railway station. There were roadside stalls having a hundreds of different leaflets with different vacancies. Each leaflet cost two rupees. I gathered about fifty different ones, and came back to my apartment.
Piya laughed and laughed. She said, “Now you will snatch a poor person’s job.”
I said, “No. I will search for some part time role, that won’t interest anyone.”  That was an improbable target, in a city like Mumbai.
While I searched, going over ultra small fonts, my toddler kept interfering. Piya would also have questions, the most intelligent one being, “Will they hire you if they know you live here, in this apartment?”
I said, “I would say you are a 24 hours caretaker maid and that’s how we live here.”  She was not amused.
Then she asked, “What if your new office colleagues want to visit here?”
I replied, “Let me first get a job. Then I will answer your queries.”
My efforts didn’t go in vain. I shortlisted a few advertisements. After contacting them on phone, and going through the process with two of them, I got one role – rather I chose one. Both had no takers.
The job was one of managing finances of the Auto Rickshaw Union of Thane. It was a trust that ran on very small donations from its members. The job description required the person to file quarterly statements and take signatures from the various position holders in the trust. Once in a month, the collections had to be made though there was no pressure – they came voluntarily.
It was a one room office with one phone line, one desk and two cupboards – all very old furniture. It was about five kilometers from my apartment. There was only one other colleague, an old Marathi man, who He said, introducing himself, “Folks call me Nandu Bhau. I am the head here.” He was kept there by someone high up.  He would interview me.
He asked me, “Do you know Marathi?”
I said, “No.”  He asked, “Then how will you manage here?”
I said, “Anyhow most of the drivers are from North; should not be difficult.”
He said, “Okay. Salary will be two thousand only. Will you be able to manage?”
I asked, “I will work elsewhere too. What are the timings here?”
He said, “I live next door. I am around all day; I drive auto but go out only for a couple of hours. You come when you want. This office has no door.” It was an open room indeed.
I asked, “What is to be done?”
He explained, “The main sir doesn’t come here; he is a close friend of the MLA. His name is Chotta Bhau. He will call you to explain your work. You fill those registers; keep a record of all income and expenses.”
I said, “Okay. But will I get paid on time?” I was not worried but I feared losing this job if I did not act like one cash strapped person.
The old man smiled, showcasing his entire brownish dental set. He said, “Koi problem ho, Chotta Bhau ko bolne ka.” (‘Don’t worry. Any problem- you just tell Chotta Bhau.’)
 My prospective boss’ was known as Chotta Bhau, meaning younger brother in Marathi. I wondered what this Chotta Bhau would be like. 
Next day, I met Chotta Bhau. He wore white kurta pyjamas and white leather footwear. His real name was Ajit Aamre. He was about five feet two inches, stocky and in his mid fifties. He was a nice gentleman, though a bit rough in his language.  He marketed himself as the right hand man of the local MLA, who in turn was marketed as the right hand man of his party’s top bosses. He had been the main organizer of this Auto Union and had formed this trust. Once upon a time, almost twenty years back, such activities meant a path to becoming an MLA, but now the world had changed.  Though, Chotta Bhau still thought he was very important in his senior’s eyes.
The Auto trust’s activities were simple. When their party would be in power, this trust shall also get some donations. They would conduct some social activities in slums where drivers lived. That would strengthen the voter base. Some percentage from the funds could be siphoned off by Chotta Bhau to survive, and lead a modest life.
When not in power, like these days, the trust languished. Its monthly donations from member Auto drivers, were supposed to total to about a paltry ten thousand rupees. That too was very irregular, and not kept record of. Out of that ten thousand, two thousand was my salary, two thousand went to Nandu Bhau, another thousand rupees on phone bills, and five thousand went to Chotta Bhau. Chotta Bhau also earned by running around for the MLA, and by siphoning off something from those whom he took to the MLA for some work. Nandu Bhau doubled up as an auto driver to maintain his household expenses.
In a way, Chotta Bhau was paying a significant part of trust’s monthly money to me, which otherwise he would have kept. He would not have hired anyone but the problem was that both of them were absolute disasters in managing the books and collecting the fee. They did not know accounts, or how to file them online. The trust’s accounts were not prepared for last four years, so they would not get any donation even if the MLA could find someone willing to give.
In such circumstances, Chotta Bhau was being pushed into closing it. He could not afford the paltry expenses of running it. But this was his identity as a major grass root leader. Closing it was akin to erasing his political identity; and he had no clue what to do about it.  So I was hired, in the hope that somehow filling this post was the solution.
When I came home, and described the Trust and Chotta Bhau to Piya, she laughed for almost an hour. Babu, now a toddler, laughed with her.
But I liked both of them at first sight. They lived in a make believe world of theirs, but behaved like owners of an Estate.
The only problem between three of us was that I was not that much in awe of Chotta Bhau or Nandu Bhau. It was not disrespect, but I always had been a bit straight. It was not a trait expected of a guy taking up a part time job for two thousand rupees. My attire was always unbranded and simple, but language was much refined. So Bhau must have wondered about it.
In a few days, feeling guilty, I gave Chotta Bhau an offer, “Bhau, you pay me only when the month’s collection surpasses ten thousand, or we get some donations. I have found more work in remaining time that will pay me enough.”
Nandu said, “Bhau, he is making excuses to go.”
Chotta Bhau said, “No. He is not that kind. He talks straight.”
In a few days, we became pals. I would order tea and vada pav and pay for all. Nandu Bhau would also get to smoke. He became a more eager assistant now. We meticulously updated the list of members and their numbers and addresses, and the shift timings when they plied autos. Most of them were not the owners, so owners had also to be approached for monthly fee. But Chotta Bhau’s name worked in easing things. I revised upwards the importance rating of Chotta Bhau; he still was an important person when a strike threat was needed once a year or on some other occasions like festivals etc.
Preparation of the Auto trust’s books was another tedious job. But it became easy once I saw their bank statement- they hardly used the bank account. Only about ten percent receipts of cash had been issued, as most Auto drivers did not bother. But we could not ignore the unaccounted part in the books as it would have shown a lower membership. That in turn would significantly affect Chotta Bhau’s standing. So entries of cash inflow and outflow were made for last four years. The amounts were quite small for a year; it did not raise anyone’s eyebrows.
In two month’s time, the accounts were filed. The members’ list took another month. In last four years, Thane area had seen three times growth in the number of autos. Majority joined this union but records were not kept properly. The list of members stood at two thousand now.  Logically, at old membership rates, we should have been collecting twenty thousand rupees a month. If we added inflation, it would be double of that.
However, there were more complexities. First, there was a competition from another union. Collection of any fee without tangible benefits would have led to loss of members, especially when the traffic police was under a different ruling party.  Second was that Chotta Bhau took approval of higher ups before any proactive steps.
One day, I told Bhau, “Bhau, now all filings have been submitted online. I have prepared some letters addressed to the local government for requesting funds for various social activities. Please put these forward.”
The activities ranged from training auto drivers to doing a study on their socio-economic conditions.
Bhau was very elated, as if they were not requests for donation but some certificates he had received. The letters were in Marathi. Without informing both Bhaus, I had approached and paid a clerk at the Collector’s office to prepare the requests.
Chotta Bhau gave them to the assistant of the MLA, to be marked and moved forward.
After some brainstorming with Nandu Bhau, I asked Chotta Bhau if he could get the office‘s drinking water connection repaired, and get the parking space in front of office cleared by moving vendors aside. He promptly got it gone. There was space to park four auto rickshaws now. I got a board installed signifying the office.
Next, I did a deal with a food vendor. We allowed him parking space meant for one auto. In return, he would pay two thousand a month. Further, for all food supplies to office visitors, he would charge at normal rates but give back the profits to us which were almost half of the rates.
Then we stared calling twenty auto drivers to visit the office each day in the first half while I was there. They would come in at times convenient to them. We would ask them to have tea, breakfast or lunch, as their need was; but each one had to pay for himself. They did not mind, rather once our interaction was over, they felt happy of having a network.  Chotta Bhau also started coming regularly, not to be left behind.
In this manner, we met almost five hundred members in that month, about a quarter of all membership. We indirectly collected about fifteen thousand rupees.  
But more than that, we collected a lot of experience and data. Most folks had come from outside Thane. About half of them were fairly young, who had left their homes in far north and migrated. There was a stiff competition for an Auto Driver’s job. But it was quite a well relaxed job where owners could not exploit them to work long hours.  On the other hand, those above forty were quite settled. Most had children who aspired to become professionals. It was a pleasant surprise.
But there were many other issues- they paid a relatively heavy price for basic civic amenities; they didn’t have medical insurance and if an auto needed maintenance, it wiped out their many months’ savings.
Once that month’s collections were given to Chotta Bhau, he gave me two thousand rupees. I was hesitant. I said, “Bhau, deposit them with yourself. I will take when I need them.”
Bhau said, “I don’t promise if I will have it then.” I said, “No worries.”
Bhau then got emotional. He said, “You work very well. If you don’t take this money, I will feel bad; at least allow me to throw a party for you.” Then he asked both me and Nandu to come for an evening party to a dingy dance bar that evening.
Chotta Bhau was otherwise a simple wife fearing family man, but tonight he wanted to throw a grand party – I think my not taking money was bothering him about his status.
I said, “Bhau, I haven’t had such drinks ever.” I did not mention country wines else he would have been happier. Country wine meant something much cheaper in the cities.  
Chotta Bhau said, “You don’t drink but you see, na.” Then both of them laughed loudly.  He said, “This Nandu can drink your part also, and see on your behalf too.”
The meeting was fixed for eight p.m. at some Chaaina Bar near Castle mill area. I told them, “I have to be home by ten else the owners will throw me out.”
I went home that afternoon and updated Piya about our celebration plan. She laughed for another hour.
The Chaaina bar had a small door, guarded by two men – a low end version of bouncers. Bhau was known there; they both saluted him.  Inside, the tables were laid out in dark, while the dimly lit stage had many young girls standing, and tapping their legs on the Bollywood tunes. It was pretty early in the evening. The usual time for customer arrivals was after nine p.m.
As the night grew, the music became loud, very loud and the girls dancing became mildly more active. Some clothes came off, but remained far less than the Bollywood version of such bars. It had no art or taste or fun, but a stamp of girls’ poverty written all over it.
Nandu and Chotta Bhau drank like fishes. Once, inebriated he made many big plans. He said, “Had you come earlier in my life, I would have got a ticket. These brokers have got all the posts while folks like me have got sidelined, just because I don’t generate money. But I have built their base here.”
Then he moved to his another passion – how to run traffic systems.  He did not ever remember simple numbers of this Auto union trust, but he remembered complex budget financials of local railways and highways tolls.
Our party got over by eleven. The bill came to a thousand rupees. I decided that next time I was going to take the money he gave, instead of letting them blow it away like this.
Next month, we got a grant of Twenty five thousand rupees from government, budgeted at the rate of Rupees fifty per driver. Five hundred drivers were to be trained on traffic signals.  We printed two page leaflets. Whenever a driver came to the office, Nandu Bhau gave one to him and explained also.  Then we took his affidavit of having been trained, to be submitted back as record. Almost full amount became our savings.
We also started an initiative to help any driver in distress of any kind –whether it was a medical need or tuition fee payment for children or anything else. He had to inform us. Then we would see who could help them.  Those days the social media was still not so actively used for such causes. But the news could be spread anyhow.
No major need arose in three months, except one case where a rare blood group was needed – a blood bank owner was contacted and he helped us.
In six months, the trust’s bank account also touched one lac. I had informed Bhau that I would leave after a few months, but assured him to call me when he needed. I also started training Bhau’s daughter on how to run the affairs. She had completed her graduation and was sitting idle, looking for jobs.
By then, I had become like one of his family members, and he had a lot of members in the extended family- all living nearby.  I had been many times to his home, but had never called him to our apartment. By now, he understood that there was some story behind me, but didn’t bother me.
During Ganesh utsav, I called him and his family to our apartment for lunch. Lakshmi had also been there to see the festivities in Mumbai. He came with his two children and wife, all decked up as if going to a marriage.  They were initially surprised to see our set up, but then settled down.
Bhau said, “I knew from first day that you were doing this work for some study. Else why would you need to work for two thousand rupees?” He said instead of trying to guess what I did.
I said, “Bhau, there were days not long ago when I needed just two rupees also. And I was searching for a job when I came to you.” Then I showed him the advertisement leaflets that I had bought. He still didn’t believe but could not refute my search also.
Then I said, “I was looking for an honest work where I could fit in, and according to my timings. I really like your work but I have other commitments also. I will fully train your daughter.”
Then I addressed her, “If you do this work sincerely, you will never need a job. The world will offer so many opportunities if you will remain sincere and selfless to your work.”
I trained her for next one month. We expanded the purpose of the union to include the wellbeing of drivers’ wives and their issues. She learnt to unblock her mind and expand the footprint according to the changing times. 
It had been more than a year in Mumbai region now. In the meanwhile, my core work had been growing. My calendar started to get fully occupied. After a month, I stopped going to Bhau’s office but they could call me on cell when needed. 

Chapter 46. New Paths

Our village had many important visitors in the next year, some prominent social workers, officials and politicians, apart from those looking for business opportunities. But three of them stood out as different ones.
For quite some time, we had been getting feelers from a local representative of a prominent regional newspaper. He initially visited us for a newspaper advertisement offer, which was declined. Then he started pestering for an interview with Amma.
He was quite a young guy, in his mid twenties, named Dubey.  I knew that he was not paid any salary by the newspaper. He earned a small amount from advertisement sales, but his major income came from black mailing folks. Most rural folks were very conscious of their name appearing in a bad context in a print media. He would look for leads that could be a source of income by defaming any person.
He had been quite disappointed with our trust; it was a pretty bad account. Of late he had been desperate; appearing regularly in Amma's court, and pestering visitors and villagers with his queries. We gave him a time for an interview with Amma. I left Amma to face this guy. We expected some sadistic interview by Dubey.
Before the interview, we made him agree on our condition to print our answers verbatim, without abridging or interpretation. It was video graphed to keep him honest.
He asked, “Amma ji, were you a beggar before you came here?” Amma said, “Yes beta.”
Dubey asked, “But when did you turn from a beggar into a saint?” Amma said, “When lord Rama decided.”
He persisted, “I mean how can a beggar become a saint?” Amma said, “What is not possible for Ram?  He only made you a reporter, and then sent you here.”
I added, “Please tell us what enabled you to become a leading reporter in this area?”
The boy was too young and didn’t get the question correctly. He answered, “No one in entire district can ask the questions that I do. That is why I am representing this newspaper.”
I asked, “And how are you able to ask them?” He replied, “Because I only want to know the truth.”
I again asked, “So are you able to know the truth the moment you see it? That is awesome at your age and knowledge level.”
He boasted, “Yes, it takes me only a moment to see if a person is lying.”
I pitied the boy. This guy had a mental emptiness that could not be filled so easily. I asked him to continue his questions.
He asked Amma, “Do you perform any black magic, or tantras?”  She said, “No, I don’t know any.”
He asked, “Then how do you solve anyone’s problems?”
He had a few threads on his wrists and a pendant in this neck. I immediately asked him, “So you think black magic can be used to solve problems.” He nodded in agreement, and said, “I know a siddh baba who has given these. They have protected me since I was a boy.”
I told him, “Amma has God's goodwill. Her blessings work. You should also try instead of being skeptical and questioning.  If God leaves your side, then these pendants also won’t work.”
The conviction in my voice made him hesitate in interviewing further. As a consolation, I offered to show him around the village.
It was a bad use of time as his search for truth continued unabated. His question set primarily consisted of:  'Who lives in that hut', 'what is the name of that pond', and similar ones. I did not try to figure out how his investigative journalism functioned; and left him to his troubles. The fellow didn’t pester us much after that day.
Another interesting character that visited us introduced himself as an agent, one Shyamlal. Our Chartered accountant was familiar with him.
He was a typical tout, which inhabited the government offices. Appearing ever helpful and humble, they were a novice's guide to the system. They didn’t hold any official positions, but had access to office.
I gave an appointment to him, and preferred to call him to the village. He said, “Sir ji, I have heard about this Trust and its work. I can be a very useful person for you.”
I asked, “How?”
He said, “If you need funding from a government scheme, or a subsidy, or need to settle a bank loan for less, a tax enquiry, or need a license for anything from vehicles to mines, I can be of help. I will facilitate the movement of files and various payoffs.”  Then he gave a list of project subsidies that he had just got approved.  
I appreciated his good work. Then I asked, “How much will you charge?”
He said, “Sir, I am a small middleman. The payoffs will be two to three percent of the benefit you get. It all goes above. Regarding my fee, you can pay me as your wish, once your work is done.”
I knew he was not lying. The administrative and political machinery had many such practices to regularly make money.
I said, “I don’t doubt your credentials since our Chartered Accountant is known to you. But for now, we don’t have any need.”
He said, “Sir, try me out then. Let me get you money under a current hot scheme.” After rejecting most of his proposals, we settled for one program for improvement of cow breeds through artificial insemination program. The trust would get funding for injecting a thousand cows. The fee payable would be a thousand rupees per cow.
I said, “How will we get good quality semen, stored and brought in a nitrogen cold chain from a distant place, and a veterinary doctor service in this amount?”
He said, “I will help you complete the paperwork of having completed the work, and show the utilization of funds. You will save almost eighty percent of it, while the rest will be used in approvals and other costs. Once your track record is good this year, then next year we will get more funding.”
I have had no firsthand experience of this system, but did not desire it also. I have had bigger experiences. But the explorer in me did not back down.
I asked him, “I won’t go with you in such plans. But I can pay you for something. You monitor and inform us how much others are getting in this area, with their details.”   He said, “Of course, Sir. But why do you need it?”
I said, “We will give your fee for this work. At least we will know how this system works. And we will know your worth too.”
I checked with our accountant if he had any reservations about this man. He didn’t care much.
 Shyamlal agreed happily. Within two weeks, he gave us a list of last year’s approvals and how much was made by the end recipients.
I didn’t learn much from it - only that there was a lot of entropy in the official system.  Shyamlal was a useful contact; he could come handy at some other time.
The third set of visitors made me extremely sad. They were a guy named Sandeep, and his parents.
He was in mid forties, and looked haggard. He had become bald also by slow attrition. He had heard about us and came looking for me. He was a senior from my alma mater IIT Kanpur, and a mechanical engineer. Almost ten years back he had returned from US to start a seed generation company. He had taken debt funding from the state industries fund.
Seeds were heavily controlled and adulterated business. One had to agree to adulteration to meet the payoffs for the officials and politicians. He resisted it, and launched his own brand. Soon, his brand's bags were raided and charges imposed of adulteration. It was a serious charge that ruined his business.  To add to his woes, the various state departments also imposed financial penalties.
It took him eight years to clear his name in the false cases. He had lost precious years of life and the zeal to do anything creative. Now he earned his living by doing home tuitions; a complete waste of a precious national resource - an enterprising mechanical technologist.
I was so saddened to know his account that it moved me to tears. Somewhere, I could see myself in him, and his parents looked like mine. So many good persons had helped me out, Nagbaba being at the forefront. But he had gone through it without any such luck.
I asked him to stay back for the evening. I felt a deep sympathy for him and his family.
Over dinner in our home, he narrated his experiences. He said, “Bhaiya, Dau and his contacts ruined my life. That is why I feel gratitude for you.”
His using the term ‘Bhaiya’ was a bit uncomfortable. He was seven years senior to me. But had been beaten down so much by his trails that he had become very submissive, an almost impossible trait for anyone who has been an entrepreneur.
His father said, “Sir, my son had a sadhe saati* in his life. Dau used to trouble us even till last year. Then you came as a savior to us.”
 (*sadhe saati was a dreaded seven and a half years of bad luck brought about by Saturn god, called as ‘Shani Maharaj’. It was a common belief in our society that anyone who was passing through this period was damned to see a lot of troubles in this phase.)
I said, “Uncle, don’t call me Sir. I am a junior to your son. This system doesn’t help anyone in distress, rather exploits. How can we blame Shani Maharaj for others' acts? He may have had a bad time, but what were the police, judiciary and others were doing? They were the real Shani Maharaj, in your case.
We took good care of them. I narrated to them the events of that night when I had walked down to the village, completely broken, and many other such events. Our conversation lasted till late night.
Once they left, Piya remarked, “Now I will never be angry with you, for anything.”
I said, “But why? Please don’t do that.”
She didn’t say anything. But I knew she was affected by their story, and how close I had been to ruin.
In October, immediately after the Navratras, Amma's send off was finalized. Her bank deposits topped thirty lacs and she could live off the bank's monthly payouts. Her percentage share in the trust's income also remained intact and her wealth would grow with time. Someone may think that we made her a fortune, but I thought that God sent her on my path, as a help when we needed every penny of it.
But before that, I had to keep the promise given to my mother. One day, I took Amma to my home in Bhopal. My mother was completely overwhelmed. She had many questions about her future. I gave her a large photo of Amma, which was promptly placed in the drawing room, next to the television, staring at all who sat there.
I complained, “Now how will anyone watch the television?” But she didn’t budge. My mother was like that. On such matters, she was quite rigid.
During the Navratras, Amma's sons and their families came to the village to take her. They also witnessed her aura. Almost the whole set of villages came to see her off at the Sohagpur railway station. I hugged her, and promised to visit her often. Then I touched her feet.
I advised her, “Amma, rest in your home. Don’t talk too much; else folks will start pestering for blessings.”  She removed her thick glasses and wiped her tears.
We came back to the village along with the caravan. That evening, everything was so silent in the village.  Ours was still a small settlement with just twenty one homes; and her absence was felt in every home.
All this while, Sardar’s men had also been working to adapt to the newer situation. Leaving mining and logging as lost causes, they had moved to occupy the spaces left vacant by Dau’s weakness. They now controlled Fertilizer distribution, Cement and sand distribution and had been trying entry in Seed distribution. They had a say in the Road projects connecting each village. Most of these business licenses were based on auction, but they ran with collusion at the highest level.
To a common man, it appeared to be separate parties getting small contracts. But clearly there was a network behind it. The only cement brand available in a large area came from a certain plant in Rewa. The plant was owned by a networked group, and the plant got limestone from a mine owned by a networked politician.
I did not bother too much about it; only two things troubled me – one was that they financed a majority of press advertisements and were in a position to influence the public as they wanted. 
Secondly, they owned beer and gutkha distribution businesses and really hated the Mahua and such natural wines. If they could get tribals to leave Mahua and adopt their ways, financial control would automatically follow.
The reason it troubled me was that most of those between fifteen and fifty in our villages had received very little formal education. They had limited ability to see through such designs. Despite seats being reserved for tribals for last seventy years, not a single doctor or engineer or a lawyer or an official had ever been created here.
Our group’s knowledge vacuum was a huge weakness that had to be countered, if we wanted the Sardars or Daus or the system to never exploit us again.  There was going to be no respite from these elements unless we were much superior in knowledge. 
The tribal elders agreed with me that the process of learning was broken centuries back, and the present young generation had already gone beyond the point where they could be retrained for higher skills. But their value system was still intact; we had to use this strength to hold on to the recent revival. Then, we would buy time to develop the next generation.
This world was a continuous battle field - winning in physical ways meant that an intellectual destruction was on its way or vice versa. Success or failure was so momentary – it could only lead to a newer goal.
We needed ten to fifteen years of planning and sustained effort to produce first results. We set up a children's development center. It was to identify the talents of children below twelve, and then the Trust was to offer them a path, and finance it.
For immediate start, we selected ten children. Lakshmi was one of them. They were to be sent to a good boarding school nearby. It was around two hours from the village, and children could come home on weekends.
For the remaining ones, we hired good tutors. The tutors were hired full time and given a place to stay in the village. They would complement the government school studies but were much better in explaining concepts. I gave them a goal of making children compete in public tests where children from best academic schools competed.


These posts are fiction. Good fiction cannot exist without real experiences. Also, fiction is easier to relate to.

Any similarity to a person or an event is unintentional and purely coincidental.

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