We left the highway and turned left towards the Narmada River. We didn’t want to drive on the highway now. Taking inside roads, by dark we reached the village where Raju Mama lived. The last six kilometer road was without any directions and had frequent junctions. Though Sooraj and others had come here just a day before, we had to frequently ask for directions.
Raju Mama lived in a large fenced compound, in the middle of a vast field. The farm was surrounded by flat fields, which had standing wheat crops at this time of the year. The green color of the wheat could be seen as far as the eye could see, with some golden spot due to early maturing.
Raju Mama’s family had a tractor and a motor-bike. On his compound, some ten families lived. They were all field workers, who worked for him for almost a third of government rate, but in return got free rations and a place to live. Over last twenty years, he had grown many mango trees in his compound. The shade of these trees was the daily meeting point of the village folks.
Facing the compound entrance was his house, which had been built almost forty years ago. Behind the house were the huts of the workers. Raju Mama’s mother, who was also my distant grandmother, and his wife and other women were inside as the food was being cooked and sent hot from the kitchen. Good farm house made simple food was served to us. It comprised of simple dal and rice, curd and pickles.
After the dinner, our beds were arranged in the courtyard. It was quite cold and old styled thick cotton quilts were used to keep us warm and comfortable.
This place did not have the safety of Nagbaba’s hut; still Raju Mama had four German Shepherds that were left loose at night.
Lying in our beds, staring at the sky, our bedtime discussion was due.
Raju Mama knew that the Prakash was coming the next morning. Raju Mama had long been interested in being a part of the project. Though Pipariya was some twenty five kilometers from here, it was the largest Mandi around and the villagers were quite tuned to the happenings there. It would have increased his reputation in the nearby area, and he had already announced in the village that his project was going on in Pipariya. As a result, he had to keep his reputation. He visited there sometimes and if any villager known to him was present, Raju Mama pretended to give some instructions as a show off. It was something which the project team hated but there was no way for them or me to stop it.
When Raju Mama had visited me in the hospital, he was eager to tell me about his worries on the project.
Today, he got the opportunity. He started, “Bhaiya, your team there does not understand the local politics. The local leaders are upset the way they have been ignored. They say that this project is being done by Dau – you all are only a front.”
He continued, “Many people that have been hired came from villages where Dau has good hold. The gatemen, the security and a couple of accountants come from these villages. Your unit operators come from North India and they seem friendly to the Sardars’ men, and are in contact with them. Only one operator who comes from Bihar is naïve.” He was referring to Prakash as the person from Bihar.
I did not know if there was any merit in what Raju Mama said. He had lived all his life in discussing such things. I told him, “Raju Mama, I will discuss with the team if there is any truth in it. They are all very qualified people who know their job well.”
Raju Mama continued, still trying hard, “See if you tell everyone that I am the person in charge of the project, no one in Pipariya will touch it. You don’t have to pay me for it or even put it on paper. They can’t harm a farmer’s interest. If they do so, their political prospects will suffer. They won’t get votes from our area or from our community, in this lifetime.”
“Your team has no local affiliations. If your project succeeds, then people may praise you but Dau or Sardars won’t allow your success.”
I looked at Tilak and Sooraj. We all understood that what Raju Mama said was quite likely correct. But it was difficult to trust Raju Mama with any role, as he could turn loose cannon anytime. There was nothing like a role discipline in his life.
I told Raju Mama, “It’s a difficult choice. The people there have different skills without which this operation cannot be run. Ravi is good technically and understands process and technical aspects of cold storages and chilling plants and the processing unit. Prakash heads it and knows legalities and our risks. They are very educated and won’t work under your name. Still I will pass on your worries to them as I cannot ignore what you say.”
Then Raju Mama turned the topic, and asked in his round about manner, “Bhaiya, you now have a powerful friend but he is of no use to anyone.”
I looked puzzled and asked, “Who is that?”
Raju Mama laughed, “Who else? Nagbaba. Don’t go by his demeanor. The forest and mountain folks of this area are very dangerous. You should be very cautious of him.”
We all were amused. I thought that Raju Mama was just being jealous. But he continued, “Almost thirty years back, Elder Raja had sent one thousand men to take back his lands. These tribals killed more than hundred and fed them to wild animals. That sent Raja into a shock and he didn’t recover from it.”
I just said, “Hmmm.” There was no point in acknowledging or refuting it. The rural rumors and tales had their own life and versions. Thus the conversation ended that night.
In the morning, I was woken up by Sooraj to look at a spectacle.
It was half past 8 am. Others had woken up early and had been laughing at Raju Mama’s work. He was a real character.
All the young male goats, some twenty of them, had been lined up in the courtyard. Like an assembly line they were moving towards a spot where Raju Mama was sitting on the ground. He had three other men assisting him in maintaining the queue and holding the goat while Raju Mama completed his work.
Raju Mama had an iron stamp with a wooden handle in his hand. He was heating the stamp side of it in a fire, and once it was hot, he was stamping it on the goat’s body at three places. I thought that he was trying to mark his goats. But when I looked at the stamp, it read ‘786’ written in Urdu script.
Nearby, Sooraj and Tilak were laughing and rolling over, while Shafiq was nodding in head with a gentle smile.
I asked, “Raju Mama, what are you doing?”
Without looking up, he said, “Bhaiya, even if one out of twenty goats gets one 786 visible distinctly in a different color, then this will be worth it. That goat will not sell for less than twenty thousand, almost four times the others. At the time of Enid, religious Muslims are willing to pay any amount for such goats. Think how much profit I will make if all of them turn out like that.”
‘Poor goats’ I thought. I said, “They pay when its natural, not made like this by humans.”
Raju Mama replied, “Bhaiya, they won’t be able to figure it out once the hair grows back. Only a doctor can.”
Sooraj asked, “Have you ever made money like this, even on a single goat?’
Raju Mama was unfazed, and said, “I have not made it so far because I did not know the right technique – so either the hair did not grow back properly or they were of original color. I am learning more about it every year. Once I know, all twenty will come out perfect. Last year there was only one such goat in Hoshangabad and it fetched one lac rupees.’
Tilak added, “Raju Mama, the same goat if sold in Delhi will fetch even twenty five lacs. It was news last year.’
Raju Mama was proven right by that statement. He jumped, “See Bhaiya, these guys know about it.”
I realized there was no way to prevent the goats from being stamped. I looked at Shafiq and said, “See this. You now know which heaven these holy goats come from.”
Shafiq answered, “Bhaiya, all this does not work. The one goat that got sold for twenty five lacs was a natural one – the experts know when they see one.”
I gasped. There was no point in debating the concept – it was too deeply ingrained. I said to him, “Okay, that means the demand for real 786 goats also creates a good market for the fake ones too.” Everyone was accommodated in that statement. All agreed to it.
Two persons, Ravi and Prakash, arrived from Pipariya before lunch. They knew the area well and had been to Raju Mama’s village earlier. In the initial stages of the project, they had roamed around in many areas, meeting farmers to inform them about the benefits of using the bank credit and the storage cost in our facilities.
They were as usual, in an upbeat mood. We all settled down. I had asked Raju Mama to be silent, so he kept away. Shafiq was not interested in our talks.
Ravi, an engineer from Maharashtra, was in his late twenties. This was his first job. He had been looking for half commercial- half technical roles when he had joined us. He was a technical guy but had worked hard to know the gap between the needs of farmers and the existing financial and logistic infrastructure.
Prakash was earlier a technical person but now more into pricing and financial deals. He had found it easy to work with red tape of banks and many government owned organizations. He realized that they all looked for some freebies and ego massages, and in his early years in Bihar, he had learnt the art well. He was thirty and the most qualified person on the ground, carrying a degree from the one of the good engineering schools backed by good experience. He always worked with passion. He had believed that this project would make him a well known and rich person. He was not after money but he had a great greed for name. He slept, ate and drank his dream. In a short span of time, he had become the most recognized person in Pipariya – known as a tireless worker. He loved the recognition.
I did not know then that some danger was lurking there. He did not know how to distinguish between genuine and fake recognition.
As we were all on a high energy project, there was a bonding between all of us. It was further deepened due to my accident and recognition of the risks I faced now due to the project. I had been in constant touch with them and trusted them with all the information. Only these two apart from me and Sooraj knew most critical information.
The storage breakeven for us was at fifty percent capacity utilization. We needed more long term storage stocks. Prakash had been sending a lot of weekly traded stock to Aditya. It generated a lot of activity but not much money. We discussed at length about how to improve long term utilization.
Then we turned to Ravi. The operating cost was his area. We quickly did some numbers. With some improvements he planned and also selling of the wastage, our breakeven came down to thirty percent of capacity. Immediately, our faces lit up with a prospect of profit of extra five million rupees in this year.
I said, “Here is the deal. If we get this extra money, then we try more risky products like green vegetables.” Both of them were happy too- it was a new horizon and learning opportunity.
Now I told them about what Raju Mama had heard in Pipariya about our lower staff.
Prakash reconfirmed their backgrounds to refute what Raju Mama was saying. But it turned out that Raju Mama’s information was correct –the watchmen and gatekeepers were all from a cluster of villages nearby.
Prakash explained, “They work better together and are willing to work in odd hours if they can come and go together at night. These guys have been sincere. Raju Mama has issues with them because they don’t treat him as the owner.”
Prakash looked enraged that Raju Mama was creating nuisance. I asked him to calm down. I told him that we had to discuss any unpleasant thing that came to our attention, whether true or false. I did not want a repeat of the assault in any form on anyone. I thought he understood.
We finished the pending business. I had to go over all processes – from inward receipts to future contracts, and check who were signing the documents. There were gaps.
Despite all the warnings and instructions, there were stock documents that had been received on our behalf by the gatemen. I shook my head. I did not know why but any laxity of processes here was making me nervous. I told Prakash that no Gatemen should sign on the receipt.
Prakash was not happy with my hyper activism on such issues.
Ravi was normally nodding or silent.
I was a reasonably good judge of hidden egos of ordinary folks, but if they were wrapped by an academic layer, it escaped my eyes. Slowly I was realizing that many of those I hired were good in their fields, backed by some project experience. But they were struggling to convert it into profits.
It was time for evening tea. And time for some friendly talk. I knew Prakash was ever enthusiastic to know more about everything happening outside, and he had many questions about the case which I answered.
Then I narrated the Agarwal episode to them. Prakash immediately concluded, ‘Then we should work with him. What is the harm? He will quickly bring approvals and funding, and seems a fair person who will give us our due.” I was worried about this thought in Prakash. It was time to spend more time with him. Instead of planning to leave before dark, I decided to spend another half an hour with him and ordered another tea.
I told Prakash, “You never know where he will lead you with all the ill earned money. Let us work the right way and we will grow. We will find many others who will think like us. In your environment in Pipariya you are very alone and exposed to various elements. It is working on your mind. But remember what I have said. Once this short temporary phase gets over you will agree with me.”
Tilak and Sooraj nodded in agreement. Strangely, I did not address Ravi then. I think my sub conscious mind had started reading him.
It was getting dark. We quickly parted and went our way. When we were driving back, I kept getting calls from my home. I was returning by the same road. So their fear was at work.
We reached home by 11 pm. My mother had prepared the dinner for all. My father had gone to sleep. I gave her a five minute update of my trip –most of it related to work, and then retired.
The trip must have exhausted me. I slept for very long. When I woke up, several special dishes were ready. Both my father and mother had been busy in the kitchen since the morning. Their spirits had lifted since I had come back.
The first thing I did was to book my train tickets to Mumbai. I was going to be there for the weekend, still four days away.
In the evening, I and Tilak went to the lawyer Verma ji. I told him that I was confident that we would have the tribal witnesses when required and they will testify our account. He was not particularly elated but he appreciated it.
The better the lawyers are, the more overworked and exhausted they are. The client had to do a lot of preparation and ask them many questions. Sometimes, it gets them thinking.
I shared one more worry with him, “Why is police not completing its charge sheet and submitting to the court?”
Verma ji said, “They should file something before the next date. You find out what is going on in this case. Normally they wait for something till the last moment. Has anyone approached you to pay and then fix a few things, some kind of agent for that police station?”
I said, “No. I don’t think anyone has called my house when I was away.”
He wondered for a while, and said, “I don’t think anyone will approach now. Then there can be two more possibilities – they may have an offer price form someone else to file a certain completion report. The second is that they are still struggling to reach any conclusion or nail anyone.”
As usual his analysis did not have any place for a fair and honest police. He had seen the courts in last fifty years.
I shared my thoughts with him, “Verma ji, if the courts or police become a bargaining agency, then they lose the very significance of their existence.”
He improved my insight, “That is why there are so many disputes getting settled outside the legal system, with the help of musclemen or political agents. Lawyers and judges, even with their black income, earn a lot less than what these guys do.”
I agreed, and asked, “Is there any chance of improvement?”
He answered, “It is not so bad also. It is not an easy thing to implicate anyone with false charges though it is easier for a culprit to get away.”
Then he got down to further enlightening me, “These volumes of law books you see in me shelves have been written over last hundred plus years. They still do not influence the social or individual behavior as much as Ramayana or Bible or Quran do. Ironically, this devotion for God itself leads a common man to respect the judges, and so it is for lawyers and doctors and leaders. Otherwise, with the amount of wrongs happening, it would have been anarchy.”
I said, “I thought, you were an atheist!”
He said with a gentle smile, “Yes I am an atheist. But that doesn’t change the fact. You come with me to High Court. Right in the middle of the court, there is a temple. And just outside the premises, there is a mosque. You can see people and families praying when their case is going to come up. They are unable to place absolute faith in the judiciary and other systems.”
It was a different view of the world for Tilak. Had it been coming from someone with a lesser respect than Verma ji, by now Tilak would have made some contribution in his loud voice. But he sat silent listening. I think for years he had learnt not to let any news or view disturb the darkness of his mind. But in last few weeks he had been allowing a lot of fresh air to enter the closed doors.
That evening, I tried to write again. The fingers had enough strength to hold a pen in a meaningful way. I also tried my hand on the keyboard. The fingers had lost their memory but it didn’t take long to recover. They were itching to be of use again.