Every afternoon, Nagbaba used to took the cattle out to drink water. I followed him that day. I had planned to discuss the witness issue near the river.
As we were crossing the gate of another compound, a woman called me, “Bhaiya, please come here. Baba, please send him.”
I was surprised and looked at Nagbaba. He smiled and nodded and told me to meet at the river.
So I went in that large hut. Without wasting time, the woman asked her son to come out and said, “Bhaiya, he is not able to see properly. Please tell what to do.”
I asked, “Since how long? Was it normal earlier?”
The boy answered, “At night it becomes dark. It has been two months or so.”
I asked, “What does he eat? He looks very thin. I can see you have many hens. You don’t give him eggs?”
She replied, “We eat Chapatti and salt on most days and sometimes vegetables. The eggs are sold in the weekly markets for half a rupee per egg. We buy other things with that.”
I was not a doctor but out of common knowledge, it looked like a common deficiency problem called Night blindness, “I think he is losing something called vitamin A. But I can’t say for sure. If a good doctor sees him immediately, he will be alright. I think you will find one in Hoshangabad.”
The woman said, half wailing, “Will he be alright?”
Many others had gathered around. I wanted to leave as any hint of solution for this boy would have made others take it up too. And I was neither a doctor, nor an astrologer.
She said, “Bhaiya, we don’t have money for doctor.” I told her, “If someone grown up can come with me, please send him and the boy. I will take them to Hoshangabad. And a government doctor won’t charge. But the boy has to be shown to a doctor immediately. I will leave in the evening; be ready.”
I hurried out of the place. Others signaled and tried talking to me but I waved and said I have an urgent work with Nagbaba and will be back in the afternoon.
Nagbaba was at the river, he was wetting the shrubs he had cut. When he had left me behind, he had known what the lady will ask of me. The entire community knew each household’s problems.
I asked, “Are there other cases like that boy?”
He said, “Not in this village but other villages have. Many of them become alright when they grow up.” I gave him a doubtful look. I believed many learned to live with it as they grew up.
I told him, “Nagbaba, this problem seems due to inadequate food rather than any disease. You need to tell folks to eat more meat, eggs just like as they used to do earlier. I don’t see any leafy vegetables around and probably it is not part of your diet now. The food is lacking a thing called vitamin A. The doctor will further confirm it. Further, there might be other health problems arising.”
He said, “But they will first sell these things.” I told him, “Eyes are more important that a few rupees. It will disrupt their entire lives. Once people understand that deficiency causes it, they may stop selling eggs and chicken and milk.”
Nagbaba stood up with a sudden spring. He was enlightened with something. I think he realized that the solution to this problem lay in their hands. They just needed someone to guide them to it.
It was 2 pm already. I came back to the hut and slept as I waited for others to return.
When I woke up, it was already dark. I must have been dead tired. Sooraj, Tilak and Shafiq had arrived but they didn’t wake me up. They had also brought enough provisions – wheat, pulses, salt, sugar and tea so that we were not depleting Nagbaba’s kitchen.
As we sat around the fire, Lakshmi brought the tea for all. After long I was getting an evening tea. There was still some time for dinner.
Nagbaba said, “She is very devoted and hard working. She is my niece actually but has lived with me since she was four. Her mother had died and the father had remarried, so I requested her to be sent to live with me. My wife had died a few years after my son’s death. This hut had become barren. After she came, I again got cows and hen.”
I asked, “How old is she? Does she go to school?”
Nagbaba replied, “She is eleven now. But in worrying for me, she has grown beyond her age. Her name is listed in the school but you know the state of affairs here. But she has learned to write from others.”
I turned to Sooraj, “Did you call Prakash from Pipariya? “ Sooraj replied, “Yes Bhaiya. He will come to Raju Mama’s farm by day after. He wanted you to come to Pipariya. He doesn’t like Raju Mama at all.”
I smiled, “It is difficult for him to like Raju Mama. But right now we can’t care less about anyone’s likes or dislikes.”
Sooraj asked, “Why he dislikes Raju Mama?” I could see even others were curious to hear that.
I answered, “Raju Mama is constantly sensing a conspiracy and visiting our office and storages in Pipariya. And he boasts there that he has been sent by me. It is a lie and Prakash knows it. But he is not able to ignore it; Prakash has some ego.”
I continued, “I sometimes feel Raju Mama is also an enigma. My feeling is not connected to any specific experience. But look at this data for example: Raju Mama has three brothers. All of them have two sons. The eldest brother’s son also has a son. That is thirteen births in a joint family, and all of them are sons.”
I paused before drawing inference. Then I said, “Math doesn’t give a high probability to that ratio across generations. I have a strong feeling that in his family, they kill daughters –born or unborn. And it is an evil practice in rural societies. But then he or his family doesn’t seem to be that kind of folks. They look much gentle and kind.”
I continued, “Then he speaks loudly and brags but inside he is a big coward and so he may get brutal when insecure. Due to these contradictions, I find him to be an enigma.”
Tilak got up and came around to shake hands with me. As others watched amusingly, he said, “Bhaiya, second time after the Agarwal episode, you have surprised me with your secret.”
I asked, half laughing at his antics, “Which secret, brother?”
Tilak said, “You knew what I knew about Raju Mama’s nature. But you have even counted girls and boys in his family – your mind is genius.”
I could barely say, “Okay. I accept your appreciation, now have your seat.’ It was too much.
Sooraj joked, “Bhaiya, Tilak is very impressed with your counting till thirteen. He would have given up at three.” We had a long laugh. Others were more amused looking at us.
I asked Tilak, “Have you got some news on Raja Saheb?” Tilak replied, “Full news. He is quite a character. It will take long. But after dinner; I am quite hungry.”
I told them the next day’s plan. We were going to Hoshangabad with the boy and then by evening we would drop him back to the village. There was no need to rush now as Prakash was coming on the day after tomorrow.
Once we finished dinner, I saw many men coming in a taking a place to sit. The word had gone around that Tilak will tell all about the Raja Saheb.
Tilak looked at them. Then whispered to me, “Bhaiya, I had done the preparation for you. But these folks have gathered here to hear a more colorful story - his mistresses and hidden wealth and all kinds of stuff.’
I told him, “Let us talk once we hit the bed. I am not sure these guys should hear about Raja Saheb.” So we diverted the topic to my views on the forest. Slowly, the gathering dispersed.
Then Tilak started, “Raja Saheb’s full name is Kunwar Bahadur Singh. He is also known as Bhanwar Bana.”
Nagbaba interrupted, “Bhaiya let me tell what I know. Raja’s ancestors had come from Rajasthan many centuries back, with the intent of plundering these lands. But soon they settled in the plains across Narmada and distributed territories amongst themselves. They became the local landlords and called themselves kings of their Jaagirs (kingdoms). There were further divisions as families split with each new generation, and till British came, each such Raja had a village or two left to himself. They tried many times to bring tribal areas under their allegiance but they failed each time.”
We listened intently. He continued, “After Independence, the Elder Raja Saheb went to the ruling party. He managed the shift from serving the British to new arrangement. Till 70s, the elder Raja’s family focused on politics, using that as a tool to protect lands and income. They also tried their hands in Mandi and transport routes. But they must have met with failures, because they lost money and owed it to Dau Patels and others. Then the fight happened between us and him. Elder Raja passed away soon afterwards and since then his son became the Raja Saheb.” All others, except me were surprised at Nagbaba’s historical knowledge about Raja Saheb.
Then I requested Tilak to share what he knew. Tilak said, “Today, people say Raja Saheb is in financial ruins, surviving on odd jobs given by Dau Patel or some local businessmen. But he still has an expensive and rash living style. He drinks a lot and fights and loses in every MLA election, and surprisingly is able to get the ticket from his party. He keeps a few men, most of them drunkards, to scare the ordinary village folks.”
Once Tilak finished, I narrated how Raja had been approaching Nagbaba to meddle in our case. Now, there were a few questions before us.
I listed them, “The consensus picture of Raja Saheb is that he may be just a puppet of Dau Patel. The question is does he know about our enemy, or was he involved in planning the assault?”
I did not think that the answer would have helped us much but we decided to be very cautious of him.
The next thing confusing my mind was that Raja’s was in no position to benefit, even if he got Nagbaba’s cooperation.
I said, “Let us assume these folks agree to everything Raja says, still this Raja is in no condition to take away wood or mines or any other earnings by himself. He is no match to Sardars, as they are even entrenched in forest departments and police, based on what we know about them. And they don’t need him. So logically, it is Dau or someone else who wants to set a foothold here and then dream of a slice of mines inside. This foolish Raja is just a messenger. ’
Tilak thought over for a moment and replied, “Bhaiya, I think this Raja knows your enemies, even if he is not concerned.”
That night, I again had an uneasy sleep. My thoughts returned to the police and the case, with the new worry of this Raja trying to meddle in it.
I was awake much before others. It was still dark. It was the first time I had seen the night before dawn in the forest. Everything was silent, almost deafening. All the creatures of night had retired.
It was the short period of lull before the dawn. Even though it was dark and silent, it was not depressing, but encouraging. Suddenly the silence was broken by a loud call of a village cock. It was followed by many competing calls and other birds joined with their voices. It was majestic. All my years in the city, I had not imagined that daybreak was such a celebration every day.
It was a few more minutes before the first sunlight came out. And so did my tea. Lakshmi was an early bird. She felt grateful for all the provisions which had come this time, and as soon as she saw me awake, the tea was made. She sat next to my cot, and asked, “Bhaiya, other children told me you can cure blindness.’
I shook my head. It was my first experience with villagers, and that too this was a backward tribal village. I asked her, “What else do they say?”
She replied, “That you know why god made the jungles.” I asked her, not knowing how to reply, “Do you believe in it?”
She replied, “I know they are correct even if you don’t tell me. You live with us and try to behave like us but even Revaram told me that you have a huge car that he had not seen before.”
The girl’s blind faith looked more like a desert’s hope from each cloud. I felt sad for her and the whole society. They were always adding up signs of hope and immediately raised their expectations to heavenly levels.
I said, “Your father knows lot more than me. I am here to learn about snakes. But don’t tell that to anyone else they won’t believe.”
She was happy to have got some secret out of me. I asked her if she can read and write. Lakshmi said, “Yes Bhaiya, I can read and write in Hindi. In English also, I can count and know some words.” Then to demonstrate, she blurted randomly, “Time, Okay, Driver, Hello, and many such words.”
A thought came to my mind. I asked her, “Lakshmi, will you help me and Nagbaba in a project? It will need a lot of hard work and reading.”
She was always eager to be of help to Baba. She was excited. I told her, “I will tell you about the work next time when I can find some books for you to read.”
When all were awake, I mentioned what the children were saying. Sooraj suggested, “Bhaiya, next time you should come here in Saffron attire, the way they show in television shows.” We had a good laugh about my prospective roles.
Before leaving, Nagbaba cautioned, “Bhaiya, do not deal with this Raja or anyone else. They will try to cheat you for getting a commitment, and once you gave it, you will be bound by it.”
I asked, “How does one give commitments to such folks?” Nagbaba looked at me in wonder, not comprehending what I meant.
Sooraj helped and said, “Bhaiya means that do you give commitment in writing on stamp paper, or how is it done?” I had meant something else but this diversion was also worth listening to.
Nagbaba said, “We just say and commit. We never go back on a commitment.”
Tilak explained, “Bhaiya, when its election time, we give them bottles. Once they are drunk, they commit. No one breaks the commitment. That’s how they vote in villages and in slums.”
Nagbaba interrupted, “But in our society, now only I am allowed to give commitment to outsiders. No one else can.”
I clarified what I had meant, and said, “Nagbaba, I meant how one can give any commitment to a person who once sent men to attack your village.”
Each human has some idiosyncrasies, just like Nagbaba had these commitment rules. They enter early in life and remain till one dies. It does not matter what situations one goes through. Nagbaba had burnt his fingers after giving a commitment to Elder Raja, so he feared every man who could deceive him into one. But his rules about commitment had not changed.
I told Nagbaba that I will be back soon. I gave him all our contact numbers. Then we left with the boy and a guardian. We reached the Hoshangabad Government hospital by noon. There was no Ophthalmologist serving there. The whole district had just one. We went to his private clinic.
Within a couple of hours, the tests were done. As suspected, the boy was having severe vitamin A deficiency and a general condition of mal-nutrition. He was likely to be cured with good diet and some supplements. It raised everyone’s spirits. Now that I knew Lakshmi could read, I wrote a letter telling them about this finding. Nagbaba could now recommend the same food to others. I also asked him to make a list of all such people.
The boy and his guardian boarded a bus that would drop them in Sohagpur, from where they would walk for three hours to reach the village.