Next day, I asked Tilak to fix a meeting with Agarwal. But he replied, “Bhaiya, Agarwal will always be keen to meet. But you need to prepare for this man.”
I understood. I was not ready to meet a person with the force of dark personality that Mr.Agarwal carried. I sat down with Tilak to understand Mr.Agarwal better.
“See Bhaiya, Agarwal is the sweetest person you will meet on this earth, as long as he makes money by dealing with you. Otherwise he is less sweet, never harsh or angry, but he waits for an opportunity. He has direct or indirect stake in many educational institutes, hospitals and religious trusts. With the blessings of those of political offices in the state, he also manages the books of urban real estate black money.”
I asked, “What was his past before this business? I mean he can’t be given all this work without earning the faith of the governing state politicians.” I knew I was throwing the discussion off from what Tilak had planned to prepare me for. But I wanted to know more.
Tilak answered, “Ten years back, he used to sit in the dense city market. He had a Readymade garments shop there. He also used to lend small amounts to known people. Many other traders in the city market gave him money to circulate on higher rates. But these amounts were small and just gave him a small two percent on the amount when recovered with interest. With some defaults eating into his profits, he was not earning much. Like me he used to travel on a bicycle. But he developed good network and always had a good temperament.”
I interrupted, “What changed things then?”
Tilak continued, “I think it was his luck. He spotted early that city market mood and so the politics of the state was changing, making room for another political player. He also knew that they didn’t have the cash strength like the party that had governed us for so many years. So he befriended the right wing leaders and tried to raise money for their campaign. His horse won and many of his contacts are ruling till date.”
Again I interrupted, “These newly elected party folks had never seen so much cash. They quickly dismantled the urban cash credit system of the old party and needed to put their own in place. That’s where Mr.Agarwal’s fortunes grew.”
Tilak smiled, ‘You try to think ahead of me.”
I smiled back, “That’s an old habit. I will always try to go beyond your knowledge.”
He asked me, “Bhaiya, do you have another person who can tell you such facts. All your other team doesn’t have a clue; they only work on desks with computers.”
He was just touching the upper boundary. I had realized or rather it was my own thought that Tilak’s personality had an upper boundary when he turned acidic, beyond which it quickly turned into anger if allowed. He also had a lower boundary, below which he would go into grief. But both had to be triggered. But not today; there was no purpose to it.
I brought him back, “See Tilak, if these computer folks work without Mr.Agarwal and his patrons in the system, they would bring better lives to everyone. We will get a chance to cross our ideas later. But now let’s get back to Agarwal.”
I continued, “See, the previous era blood suckers were mostly rural jamindars who were the protégé of the older parties. Now folks like Agarwal are spread all over the country. They were far smarter than the folks preceding them. They saw bigger opportunity in urbanization trend. Most new parties will have strong urban cash structures but weak rural ones. With real estate, education and medical care being so murkily regulated, urban was the opportunity for such people.”
Tilak seemed perplexed, “Bhaiya, I did not understand what you said.”
I said, “That’s Okay. You continue. Tell me how he makes money by giving to folks like us for a few percent. He can make a lot more money through his partnered educational and private medicare projects.”
Now Tilak corrected me. He said, “Bhaiya, he is not making a few percentages. He charges three to five percent a month. For a year that is forty percent on the lower side.”
I said, “Okay. Is there more to it?”
Tilak continued, “Wait. You do the math. How much did Papaji borrow from him and where did he spend that?”
I told him, “Roughly four lacs he borrowed. Broadly, he gave three to the police and spent one lac in the hospital. I think he spent another fifty thousand from his pocket on the staff who kept feeding him with scary news.”
Then he asked, “How much did you pay to the hospital? And How much extra we might have paid due to the second unnecessary surgery?”
I answered, “Overall I paid roughly two lacs from my side, making the total as three lacs to the hospital. Let’s assume if we hadn’t had the fixator surgery, I would have paid half of it.”
Tilak calculated now, “So overall we gave three to the police, plus one and a half lacs extra to the hospital and fifty thousand to the staff on Papaji’s rolls. It makes five lacs we have paid that we would never had otherwise. Out of this, you can assume fifty percent was circulated back to Agarwal.”
Now I had more questions mixed with thoughts, “Hmm, assuming what you say is true, it means he makes almost a hundred percent if we repay debt in twelve months. See I can understand that the part of police theft was returned back to him through the political set up. But the hospital link is not straight. Why will a bright doctor, who himself is a monopoly of sorts and has good contacts, allow a sharing?”
Tilak also was learning. He did not have an answer. But I kept extending my thought as we had lots of time on hand. I asked him, “What did this doctor do before this hospital came about?”
Tilak did not know that. I called my father from kitchen since he knew more about local doctors. My father came to the verandah where we were chatting. He said, “He is a known orthopedic. He used to have a small clinic in the old city and also worked in government hospitals. Then he left the job and opened this hospital. He took risks and is a very enterprising man.” Then he asked, “But why do you want to know about him?”
I answered, looking at Tilak to make him quiet, “We were wondering how he managed to surpass other doctors in creating such a good hospital. How he managed to get it funded? Banks don’t fund so much right at the start and without permissions. Then first you have to get a good location and land too. He must have been born in a well off family.” I said the last one as I knew my father would say it anyhow. My saying it closed the topic as far as he was concerned. He went back to the kitchen where he had been busy since the morning, making some special soup.
Then I turned to Tilak, “Probably Agarwal has more than visible say in Khanna's hospital working. After all, the capital cost has to be paid back at high rates. It can lead to harmless incomes from an extra drip, and extra operation and more useless prescriptions. He would also have employed some staff of his choice, that keep an eye on prospective borrowers.”
I paused for a long time. Then I asked Tilak, “Tilak, where all do people go when they are in distress of some kind.”
Tilak did not understand why I asked that but in anticipation of another discovery, he thought and answered, “Bhaiya, they either go to temples or mosques, or to hospitals, or to police, or to courts, and sometimes to all of them at the same time.”
I said, “There is one more place they go to; they need money. Well off folks have savings or some coverage but poor and uncovered have moneylenders. And these moneylenders already have their network or claws in the places where distress is supposed to be solved. He makes a lot of return on his cash.”
Tilak contributed, “He does a lot of charity and forgives some interest if people can’t repay.”
I said, “He must be having a loyal clientele – people who go back to their slums or villages and sing his praise for writing off their interest burden.”
Tilak said, “Today I understood why poor will remain poor till this Agarwal remains.”
I got alarmed. Tilak’s hidden anger could not be left alone. I sternly told him, “No, Agarwal is another middleman only, managing money for others. If he goes, they will find another to manage this circulation. He is only a well paid face.”
Tilak asked, “Who are ‘they’?”
I answered, “We can’t give them a name but let’s leave it here. ‘They’ are the handfuls who stand to gain from this scheme of things. As we see in case of Agarwal’s rise, this set of ‘they’ keep on changing. That’s all we should say.”
I concluded with the realization, “See Tilak, he is a middleman. He is earning a lot but it’s not his money. You see that?”
Tilak answered, “Yes Bhaiya,” but continued to divert from the point, “But he is an asshole nonetheless.” Tilak had a frown now.
I had to stop him. I said, “Tilak, we will not make more enemies and yet we may not have to pay him. He has taken close to his principal back by now. He will let go. He has such a large portfolio that he can easily adjust our small amount somewhere. It’s not his money after all.”
I asked him, “We are not after his position; all we want is our small amount to be done justice with. If you can assure me we can mix a reasonable offer with an outrageous but credible threat, he will let go. If he does not let go and if he tries to harm us, can you assure him he will be dealt later?”
Tilak was taken by surprise by my statement; he never expected me to be like that. Yet he understood the business of it. He answered in an equally cold tone, “I will ensure that.”
I asked, “How?”
“Bhaiya, I haven’t made much money but have thick friends, like me. We evacuate temporary shelters or collect money from poor folks but I have always been gentle to them. They are my kind, and so are my friends who work with me. We will do anything for honor or a friend’s pledge. I will make a promise upon my dead son that Agarwal won’t live if he harms you or even tries.” Tilak resolved.
I did not say anything beyond but was surprised by his mention of his son. I told Tilak, “We won’t have to do anything as long as Agarwal understands what you have resolved. Frankly I need every penny in today’s circumstances else I won’t ask you to take this trouble.”
Then I gave instructions, “You call Agarwal and say we want to meet regarding our accounts. If he says he will settle it with my father, tell him we will bring him along. Also make sure that after making your call, take promises from your folks to execute this fellow if he harms us. Make sure that at least one of the guys in Agarwal’s network hears about it before we meet him.”
Tilak responded, “It’s no trouble for me.” Then he continued with a wide smile, “Bhaiya, I have lived an animal’s life for last many years, even worse than that. I know the rules of this jungle. But when did you change into such a hard person? You are so educated and know computers; no one would believe what you plan to do to Agarwal.”
I just answered dryly, “Tilak, my known ways won’t work in this world. So I have to evolve. But I think I won’t change inside.” That was the end of conversation. It was late afternoon - my father had finally been able to complete his cooking. We all had good filling meal and went for a nap.
My transformation inside had been the cause for Tilak’s surprise. But I wanted my resolve to be hidden from outside world. Was I about to make another enemy in Agarwal? I did not know then. All I knew was that he would not let us recover, if he was allowed his ways. I could not let that happen.
Agarwal gave us an appointment at 9 a.m. on the Christmas day. Accordingly, Tilak completed his part by the preceding day.
We were at Agarwal’s residence a few minutes before time. By all accounts, he was a very rich man; living in a sprawling white bungalow in a lane I thought never existed in Bhopal. It was one of the few bungalows built on a hill adjacent to the large lake of Bhopal. The other side of the hill was a reserved national forest, a rehabilitation center for tigers and pythons and many such animals. I never knew that a part of the hill had been given out as residential land. His neighbors included many famous personalities from Bollywood and a few industrialists.
The guards knew we had an appointment. They made us sit in the waiting room next to the office. The waiting room had Agarwal’s photos with many known politicians and film stars and saints. There were his family photos too taken in different countries. It was a luxurious room that could intimidate any visitor and remove the focus. It was made so, possibly with that intent. The visitors were made to wait till they absorbed the reality of their stature. But in me and Tilak, it brought out a revolt; it seemed like this house was built by our money; it didn’t matter to us that we looked from a lower class here.
Agarwal came from outside to the waiting room and greeted us. Then he opened the office door and as we were entering he put an arm around my shoulder and asked, “How are you son? I was expecting your father also to come.” His tone was warm.
I answered, “I am much better now uncle, though still recovering. It may take another two months before full healing.. I had to talk to you without my father around, so I didn’t tell him.”
He smiled and replied, “I know what you wanted to say. We could have done that even on phone without Tilak going berserk amongst his friends. I know your dad since before you were born. He used to come to my shop in the city and make purchases.”
I realized Agarwal was a calm and sweet speaking fellow. Tilak’s actions had not brought any bitterness in his words. He was treating us as young impulsive men, and slowly endearing us with his talk.
He turned to Tilak, “Tilak, why have you been so bitter against me? I have always taken good care of you folks. If you had asked for even forty lacs to be written off, I would have done that, what are four lacs.”
Suddenly Tilak felt sheepish and my plan must have looked stupid to him. Even if Agarwal felt threatened or offended, he had overcome us and we were now like erring children reporting to the parent.
Tilak didn’t say anything but I replied, “Uncle, you are so powerful and we are weak. You could stamp us like insects. We were just trying to protect ourselves.”
Agarwal said, “You are weak because you don’t consider me to be on your side. I always had you in mind. With your education, we can open a good MBA college in Bhopal. There is good demand and I will get the land and government approvals. We will just need your name; we can hire some teachers for records. Anyhow students need a different thing nowadays.” He smiled and winked. Then said, “I will make sure this incident doesn’t bother you whether its police or court. But you have to be more mature. These projects like Pipariya work in US but not in our country. Why do you want a life full of trouble?”
He was offering what I had wanted – taking care of cases and a reasonably well off life. But I knew, he will keep me chained to him for life. He already had divulged his views on education and students, just to make sure I don’t regret such things once I joined the bandwagon. He wanted me to be another one like the orthopedic Doctor.
In the process, he had put us completely off track. Tilak had forgotten why we came here.
I remembered Galadriel and her mirror. Agarwal could see my struggle to say yes or no to him. I replied, “Uncle, right now I am not focused enough to think. First let’s discuss what we came here for.”
Agarwal said, “Then wait for a moment.” He called in someone and ordered tea for us.
Then he made a phone call to some called Tripathi, “Tripathi, open that Ortho hospital file for last month. How much overall we got back? Ok.” He put the phone down and turned back to us, “Your debt is settled. I haven’t made much loss.”
I was not surprised by his candid statement. He was a straight shooter once he found that there was no need for a veil. It was my turn to finish what he had proposed. If I agreed, he saw more money from that than the small loan to my father.
I told him I will think it over. I never intended to accept his offer but I did not want to offend him straight away; he had softened us a lot. He did not mind my procrastination; he knew he had to wait and let the system push me to him.
Over the tea, he let me ask a few questions. I was candid, “Uncle, you make a lot of money but it’s all out of people’s distress or manipulation of your contacts. It’s very different from your shop-keeping days. Do you enjoy doing this?”
Agarwal replied, “Once I had a small boat in this ocean and I used to struggle, not able to navigate the waves. Each day, I barely earned enough for the next day. Then I realized that the ocean won’t change to accommodate my boat. So I decided to own a ship and there are rules if you want to have one. Now I have given better lives to my family and many people. The ocean remains as unpredictable as it has always been. The point is I can’t change the ocean, nor can you. If you get tired of it, you have to make a tough decision.”
I also realized Agarwal knew the system in and out. He had experiences which were beyond my imagination. He seemed to be quite relaxed. In me, he found a person who wanted to learn from him, yet not be his friend.
I kept asking, “Uncle, what if we had offended you?” He answered, “I wouldn’t worry about harming you or even recovering my money as long as you did nothing to harm my interests. The stakes are too low here for me. But given your situation, my not helping you will be costly to you. See had your father gone to the police inspector with his own money and without riding on my money; the police guy would not have taken less than five lacs. He knew his masters were waiting for the money to be sent back, so he yielded faster. So in a way, I saved two lacs for you. That even answers your other question- if I were not providing the money to poor people and then applying pull pressure from here, the local officers would have completely ripped them off. No one sees the big social service I do here. And whatever we do is nothing in comparison to all your corporates running on licenses. Last month only, I helped a big company to illegally mine Manganese near Nagpur.” He had just made another forceful point to his prospective protégé. He hinted that without a Godfather helping me, I would be difficult to survive here.
Finally, I asked him for some advice, given what I faced. He told me he had already given the best advice but then added, “Given your situation, only look forward, past is gone and it has lost its relevance.”
With that we got up to leave. He told us he would call my father and tell him that the debt is settled. It was again an anti-climax. There was no acrimony but warmth left for the person whom we despised correctly for what he was.
On our way back to home, my mood was lighter. I looked at Tilak, “Tilak, we are not even fit to have enemies. We get won over by anyone who chooses to.” He nodded, “Bhaiya, how can we counter truth? Agarwal gave all facts and we couldn’t disagree.” Our conversation continued inconclusively till we reached home. My father was waiting for me. He had got a call from Agarwal. He narrated, “Agarwal Sahab had called. He was full of praise for you and said that you can partner in his project. You should think over it.”
I told him I will think. I did not want to spoil his cheerful mood; I had seen him so after many days; one burden had been removed from his chest. I sat down to watch television with my father. He watched Animal Planet daily evening. My mother brought pakodas and tea from the kitchen. It was a perfect winter evening in Bhopal, closeted in the home and watching television. I told them about my next day’s travel as I needed to go to Nagbaba’s village.
My parents were very worried about the planned trip to Mahuakheda, Nagbaba’s village. But they accepted it since now I had three people to accompany me – Sooraj, Tilak and Shafiq. By now my hand also had gained some strength. I could hold small utensils, glass and bend the elbow enough to eat with some effort. Each day it was improving.
I had requested one person from my office to stay at home. Tilak had also arranged one of his trusted friends to stay. Now, it was my turn to feel secure with the presence of college students as tenants.