Slowly, in my company, their painful memories came back. My mother instructed me at the station, “Tomorrow itself, you finish the settlement with those guys.” I nodded.
We came home to an affectionate welcome by Sweety. She had not eaten properly since we had gone. My mother made tea for my father. She had become very cold to me, and to my friends. She came out in the Verandah and reminded me in front of my father, “Whatever designs you have, please give the money to those guys, and then leave us alone.”
My father interrupted her, “What are you saying? Why will he pay to those goons?” She retorted, “Why? When he is not around, don’t you blame me for all this?”
I told her, “I will sort this out.” But the more she looked at me, the more agitated she got. I could see that she had lost her mind in fear. But being a son, it hurt me a lot. I went out of the house with Tilak, to make her calm down.
Both Sooraj and Mukesh called and wanted to speak to me. I imagined that they wanted to leave for some other work, and was prepared for it. I went to the office to meet them.
Sooraj said, “Bhaiya, one fellow had come to my house and threatened me and my wife. I told him I am just an accountant, and can’t do anything for his claim. But he still kept giving threats. My wife is very scared. Can you do something for these guys?”
He meant paying them off. Sooraj and his family did not feel fear when faced by police or courts or jail period. But an unknown goon, for an unrelated reason, had put them in mortal fear.
Mukesh also had a similar story. Another one had come to office and then to his home, and threatened. He had also left a number if I wanted to reach out. Both of them looked nervous.
Once they left, Tilak said, “Bhaiya, both of them are scared.” I was silent. I didn’t know what to do. We quickly returned home since my parents were alone. But they had received a phone call from one of the men. He told them to settle the matter. My father disconnected the phone cable; they didn’t want it to ring.
Next couple of hours, I sat alone and thought without any result.
I called Mr.Lal for his advice. He was vague in his advice. No serious crime had occurred in his view and he didn’t know whether to take these threat calls seriously or not. Then I called Raju Mama and updated him. Raju Mama said he would raise ten lacs by pledging his farm. I could pay it back over time and free the mortgage. He said Dau Patel would also give me some loan if I asked. Dau had offered his help after the fire but I had refused that day. Now we didn’t have any business in Pipariya but Raju Mama felt that Dau will not go back on his words.
I thought of Agarwal also; there was no harm in trying. Once I found a job, thirty lacs could be paid off slowly. With that thought, this possibility arose in my mind.
I called the number Mukesh had given. It was a number registered in Panna, one of the many places in India known for lowest cost contract killers. After getting my introduction, the main assailant came on line. I told him, “I don’t have money to give to you guys. But I can give once we get our losses from Insurance.” He said, “We can wait at most for a week as we have also got to pay. Before giving it to others, you should have paid us.”
I said, “But they had genuine losses. We don’t know about your claims.”
He didn’t comment on it. It didn’t matter to him. He just said, “Why did you call?”
I said, “I have tried taking loans. Maximum I may be able to get will be fifteen lacs. My situation is not hidden from you. Beyond that even bullets would not get you anything.” I tried to negotiate for a while. Finally he said, “Twenty five is our last. We can give you five days. After that you will be a free man.” He meant freedom on either side of the option.
I said, “Okay. But I need some assurance that this nuisance will stop after that” He said, “You can choose someone who will vouch for us and give you a guarantee. He can receive money from you and give to us.” I said, “I will revert.”
There was only one such man who knew both parties- Dau Patel.
I called up Raju Mama and told him. He was going to pledge his farm and raise money. Then I asked Tilak to check how much money he could raise. I waited for both of them to respond.
Next morning, Raju Mama called. He had Lucky Sardar with him. The Sardar had agreed to give seven lacs for a year, at five percent a month. Due to liquidity shortage, the rates of illegal money lending had increased everywhere. More than the interest rate, the burden of befriending Lucky Sardar was going to be very heavy. But I didn’t realize then how big a cost Raju Mama was going to pay.
Tilak also came home by ten. He could get a commitment of three lacs. For anything more, he would have to go back to his betting money collection work. I asked him to wait.
I still needed fifteen lacs. I decided to first talk to Dau before talking to Agarwal. I called up Dau, and narrated my need. He remembered his offer of help to me.
He said, “I can only lend five lacs now. I trust you as a good person, otherwise you have nothing to pledge here. I know these folks, and can be the facilitator. They or anyone else won’t dare to trouble you then. Had you realized this some time back, things would have been different?” He did not forget to remind me of this.
Still, we were ten lacs short. I called up Agarwal's office and got an appointment for late noon. I and Tilak went there.
We parked our bike next to many expensive cars parked in front of his house. Just like last time, he was warm. I narrated my purpose to him. He said without wasting any time, “I will give you ten lacs for six months. You may return it with five percent interest (per month). If you cannot, then you must take up my offer of opening a college as a working partner. I will take up your other loans also then.”
I accepted. He took out a plain paper, wrote his conditions, and took my thumb impression. “Just in case we forget as time passes” he said.
I said, “You have almost got me. You can create such a situation that I am not able to repay.” He smiled and said, “I won’t plot anything to push you further. But you can’t say the same about your other two lenders. You are sharp and have a good education, yet you fell into this situation. Do you know why?”
He continued, “Because you do not have any meaningful contacts. Had your close uncle been a High court judge, or a minister or the top police officer or like me, any problems would have been solved the moment they occurred. I am trying to be that uncle to you.” Then he gave us the amount.
As we got up to leave, he said, “I am a god fearing person. So I must tell you an easy way out. Take your friend Nagbaba's help. He can arrange a lot of amount for you.” I had a puzzled look. He said, “Just ask him to cut a few teak trees and smuggle the wood. By going price, ten odd trees will meet all your requirements.” I thanked him and we moved.
On the bike, we laughed over Agarwal's mind. Tilak said, “Bhaiya, Agarwal must be assessing the value of each dog and cat on the road. If they could be sold for profit, he would catch them and sell.”
Once home, I called the Panna number and asked them to collect the amount next evening from Dau. Next early morning, Tilak and Shafiq started with the money for Pipariya. There Raju Mama joined them, and they gave the amount to Dau.
I told my parents that the issue had been settled by insurance. I did not tell them about the loans. They relaxed significantly. My father brought chicken for dinner. He wanted to cook it himself.
My father’s favorite television channel was National Geographic or Animal Planet. Once he had shown me a documentary in which a wild and young elephant was being tamed. It was chained, and beaten for many days, and denied food. Then it was offered the food by its human master. The elephant refused till its spirit allowed. One day, it broke down. It accepted the food and the master. In a few days, it would completely forget its own ways and only live and die for the master. The elephant could not comprehend the game that was being played.
Next morning, my parents started wondering why any insurance company would pay for an inadmissible claim. As they dug deeper, I told them the truth.
They were not too bothered about Agarwal’s debt as he was considered a good person. They were also not worried about loans taken by Tilak and Raju Mama. But they had an impression that Dau was a very cruel mafia.
Darkness and light play to create shadows, sometimes much bigger and ominous looking.
My mother confronted me, “What is this new problem you have put us in? Now you want us to be killed by Dau.”
I said, “It will not be a problem. These amounts can be managed in a year. If they are not, then Mr.Agarwal will clear them and take me in a job.”
They had given in to Dau's fear. I tried to reason, “Dau will ensure that new demands won’t crop up.” She said, “You immediately join Agarwal Sahab; and return Dau's loan.”
I protested, and said, “Agarwal is not a saint as you think. Once I join him, there will be no return from it. He will certainly make me do a few illegal things to ensure the bondage.”
But they were not willing to hear anything else. My mother was very anxious and nudged me to act. I said, “Give me time. I can’t do as you say.”
I intended to make them talk to Mr.Lal, to make them understand what they were asking me to do.
A couple of hours passed silently. My mother lit some sandalwood and started praying, and my father lied down. Then they again got into a discussion.
Meanwhile, I was wondering what to do. The court dates were going to be frequent now. My passport also had been deposited till the court decided. I wanted some work around Bhopal till the court case lasted. Then I could move to a metro city or even abroad.
But the most lucrative or worthwhile job around was as a tuition teacher in a Coaching Institute. They had mushroomed all over the place and paid well. There were tuition classes for everything- from teaching how to speak English, or classroom syllabus, or preparation for entrance to IITs and other colleges. It extended even to subject coaching for those who were studying at third rate local colleges. Once someone finished college, then there were coaching classes to qualify for post graduate courses, and finally to prepare for Bank jobs or government jobs.
The most lucrative tuition in present day was the IIT coaching. The students went to the schools during daytime and then attended these coaching classes in the evening and on weekends. Almost every growing child in India was now going through this process of education. It went completely against my idea of education. But leaving that option out, there was hardly any well paying job around for a person like me.
While I thought, my mother called me to the dining table for breakfast. Once we finished, they wanted to say something to me. Both of them were very calm. Over last few months, they had lost a lot of weight, and looked much older now.
My mother said in a plain tone, “You didn’t ask us before leaving your job and starting this project. You didn’t ask us before bringing Tulsi here. You didn’t ask us before taking these loans. You don’t want to follow our advice even now. But you expect us to bear the burden of your actions.”
My father interrupted, “You may be right about Agarwal. We don’t want to force you. But what she means is that now we are old. We cannot run around or earn as much to repay these loans.”
I said, “I will find some work till the case ends. Then I will move to a metro and take up a job like an old one.” They remained silent.
Then she continued, “You should leave us now. Go wherever you want, but please pay off these loans.”
I just said, “Yes.” There was nothing left to comfort each other with.
I came to my room, and packed my laptop and a few clothes in a shoulder bag. They were still sitting silently at the dining table.
I pampered Sweety and came out of the house. After a few steps, I looked back at the gate; no one had come out. Then I walked till the colony road turned. I looked back again- both of them were standing at the gate. I waved and then walked; going back seemed useless – I could not give them comfort; nor listen to them yet. I had to come out of this situation myself. I also had some anger – I could not forget how Tulsi was moved out, and many other things.
I walked to the Bus stand, which was two kilometers away, and sat in a bus going to Pipariya. Around three pm, it reached the road junction where the road from forests joined the highway. I got down there.
Meanwhile, Sooraj had called a few times. I sent a message informing him that I wanted to be alone in forests for some time. I walked for almost a kilometer along the road. A bullock cart going back to a forest village stopped next to me.
The cart owner said, “Bhaiya, going to meet Nagbaba? I will drop you.” I could not recall his face but he recognized me. I nodded and sat in the rear portion of the cart. As the cart moved, he asked, “Where are you coming from?” I just said softly, “From nowhere.” He must have shelved the thoughts of any conversation. We remained silent for the rest of the journey that lasted for around two hours.
I closed my eyes and stretched my legs in the cart. There was a vacuum in my head. I had lost faith – everything I touched would turn to mud. Nothing was left materially, only debts. My sense of moral duties had not served me well. I could not recall who my friends were; the notion of belonging to the elite educated people had evaporated. I could no longer feel the warmth of love from my parents or Tara, which had been there with me ever since I knew them.