Raju Mama seemed nervous and down in spirits. He said, “Bhaiya, I have left my motorcycle at home so that the Lucky Sardar thinks I am around. I started from the farm while it was still dark.”
I asked him, “Why is he at your place? Doesn’t he go anywhere else?”
Raju mama continued, “He and his two friends have made our farm their daily evening spot. They drink, eat our food, and use foul language. Your Mami and women folks don’t come out while these guys are there. All villagers keep a distance from our farm. Bhaiya, he has made us spend in two months, what we would have spent in a year. Wherever I go, one of them will ride with me on the bike. You please help me get rid of him.”
With that his throat choked with sorrow. Then he continued, “Last two weeks, he had been asking about you. He wanted me to call you to our farm and then warn you not to return to this area.”
I asked Raju mama, “Who is he to give orders? And why do you tolerate him; take some villagers and tell him sternly not to trouble you. As far as I know you guys, your farm workers are much stronger than him and you can give them a good beating.”
Even before asking, I knew the fear of the likes of Sardar or Dau would have on their minds. But I wanted to hear that.
Raju mama said, “Bhaiya, they won’t take any insult without revenge. They are criminals- they will harm us once we are not alert and they will manage the Police and Tehsildar. We have families to protect. But I think he will leave us once he is sure you are not coming back here. Also, he arranged the money that I gave to you. Once I give it back, he will find some other place to spoil.”
I said, “Raju Mama, he will not go anywhere till there is something to exploit, and till he sees fear in your eyes. But we need to return his money first.”
I called Nagbaba, and narrated Raju Mama’s problem to him. Nagbaba was completely against my making any contact with Lucky Sardar. It was the unpredictability of such folks and their designs. Yet I wanted to help Raju Mama since somewhere I was the cause, and I cared for him.
I asked him, “What would you do if he continues to trouble you and there is no option left?”
Raju Mama said, “Then I would poison all of them or make them drunk and bury them alive in the farm at night. Then whatever happens we will suffer.”
I said, “Don’t let those thoughts come to you. It will get sorted out.”
Then I gave an advice to him, “If ever things go bad, remember to use your brain. Such folks have many enemies, you play on their minds and play one against another, and stay out of any event.”
Raju Mama had a new devilish spark in his eyes. He said, “This is the right advice.”
We reached Revaram’s hut in an hour. The path was dry and plain in this season.
Then Raju Mama left in a hurry. I could not tell what effect my words were going to have on him. But the outcome was beyond anyone’s prediction.
I waited at the hut for some time, chatting with Revaram and his family. Tilak was delayed on the road. By noon, Sooraj and Tilak arrived in the Safari.
My parents were relieved to see me back. For a while, they forgot about all that had been worrying them as if nothing had happened.
But when I been away in the forests, things had not been as calm at home as I had presumed. The information of my spending time with Nagbaba was causing irritation to everyone from Dau and Raja Sahab. They sent visitors at regular intervals to my home. These strangers would introduce themselves as my acquaintances from Pipariya and have general chat with my parents. They would leave hints that I should not mingle with Nagbaba or Lucky Sardar, else I would never come out of the police case and the debts.
I wondered if Sardars were also getting insecure, but I assumed it was still a trivial matter for them.
My father would plead with the visitor, “Saheb, he is a novice. He got angry and went away because we scolded him but he will soon be back. Please request Dau ji that he is very lost. I seek forgiveness on his behalf.”
The messengers would sympathize with him, and leave with an invitation to visit Pipariya.
Then, I did not know what was going on in my father's mind, but can say now that he was very troubled. The way I had left, then prolonged absence and being out of communication added to the trouble. To add to the matter, my mother when in fear was the worst person around. She would blabber and get anyone worked up.
In such circumstances and on advice of his friends who were retired government servants like him, my father had been quietly making up his mind to take the matters in his hands and solve the matter with Dau. But he hesitated as I was not around. On seeing me back safely, it was time to play his part.
One morning, three days after I had returned, he quietly left the house in early morning. He told my mother that he will be back by noon. When he didn’t return by four, we got worried. I called up some of his friends but they had no information. One of them mentioned that last week he was thinking of going to Pipariya and meet Dau. That was almost a confirmation of his plans. We guessed that he would have boarded the morning bus to Pipariya, and reached there by noon.
Immediately Tilak and Shafiq drove to Pipariya. They didn’t have a plan except to search for him on the bus station and the road leading to Dau’s village. I also called Raju mama and told him to standby, for any help. I told him to hide it from Lucky Sardar; I didn’t want to involve him or take any help.
By ten pm, Tilak had searched everywhere and had no news. Then I went and submitted a missing person report to the nearest Police station but had no hope from them.
When I came back home, our tenants and neighbors were also present. My mother had erupted. She had received a call from Pipariya while I was away. My father was there and had spoken to her. He sounded nervous and said he had gone to make amends but Dau had detained him somewhere in a warehouse. Nothing else was said.
I called up my ASI cousin, Mr.Lal. He patiently listened and told his analysis of the situation. I thanked him and waited for the next call. There was nothing much that could be done. If he had been held back by Dau, then we were dealing with a strongman where our folks had no physical power. It had to be played in mind.
Next morning at eight, I got a call on my cell. Dau was on the other side and graceful as always. He said, “Your father is in our warehouse somewhere. He has been taken well care of. He is a nice person.”
I said, “Please leave him. He went there to apologize to you and believed you would do some favor in my debt.”
He said, “I am also a father. I would have done anything he asked but your closeness to tribals has been a reason for thought for me. You do me a favor and I would send your father back and also write off all your debts.”
I did not like the word ‘debts’ but had no choice other than listening to whatever he was going to say.
I said, “Listen, he is a diabetic and a heart patient. Without proper doses of medication, even twenty fours neglect can be fatal for him.”
Dau said, “You do as I say. You convince your tribal friends to just puncture tires of the trucks that carry logs and iron ore from Pattan forests. I will write off Five thousand rupees of your debt for each puncture. I know you have their trust. It’s a fair deal.”
I didn’t get the math but said, “You trust me a lot. But five thousand per puncture may be small amount to convince them.”
He seemed encouraged, “I know you won’t leave your word. In addition, I will give five thousand to you as cash per tire puncture.”
I gave him the final answer, “See I won’t use them for any amount or for getting my father released. I leave him in God’s hands. But you remember one thing, if anything happens to my father whether it is your doing or not, you are finished. I guess Police have done their homework to tie you to this kidnapping and murder, and they have been waiting for a weakness. They know that living persons don’t speak up in fear but dead do. And I won’t be leaving the matter too.”
It was a bluff based on the analysis of Mr.Lal, but had logic behind it. Dau was always on the right side of law as even a small error meant his political doom. His positioned in the state politics had weakened being on the opposition side, and Sardars were ever hungry to manipulate official machinery, given a chance.
Whenever such groups executed an illegal act, there were multiple layers. And they did not indulge in kidnapping or petty extortions or bargains - they simply executed to protect their monopolies. Dau leaving a phone call trail meant he did not intend to harm my father but had used the event to bring out a wish list.
Dau said calmly, “I can give you an offer of twenty thousand per puncture. That is a lot of money. You think over it. Someone will drop your father at the Railway station by evening. He is a little far off from here.”
I said, “Thank you.”
The phone hung. I couldn’t help the feeling that Dau had been pushed back by someone powerless like me for the first time. I imagined his large face with white hair and moustaches, staring at the phone and wondering over the shock.
There was an eerie silence in my home. During my phone call, I had kept everyone away. When I returned to the living room, my mother was anxious. “What happened?” she asked. I told her that Dau was not keen on meeting him; he will be start back by evening. Tilak was going to drive him back. Everyone gathered was relieved and went to their homes.
Around noon I got a call from Raju Mama. I narrated the developments; he was quite happy to hear it. For him, it was like snatching a prey from a tiger’s jaws.
After a couple of hours, wife of Raju Mama called from an unknown number. She seemed in a hurry and anxious. She said, “Bhaiya, ask them to come by train. Park the safari somewhere. Dau’s enemies will be watching the safari and try to harm your father. Now I will go. Buy one ticket for Raju mama also.” Then she hung up.
It was an alarming call. I thought over it for while. May be it was a genuine advice since Dau had many more enemies. Identifying my father was not easy for someone who had not seen him, but the Safari was the most identifiable target. In any case, waiting at the Railway Station and traveling by train seemed a far safer option. Secrecy is the first aspect of defense.
I called Tilak and told him to leave the Safari somewhere. We decided a place behind a less used Dhaba as the owner was familiar to Raju Mama. Then they waited at the Station with train tickets. Around seven p.m., one bike dropped my father at the Station entrance. Shafiq guided him to platform and then they boarded the eight p.m. Inter-city train. Raju Mama barely made it.
All of them were at home by ten p.m. My father seemed in good spirits as he narrated the events over dinner. Last morning, he had reached Dau’s home. He was mildly sedated and taken to a remote warehouse, where he was kept well and given his medicines on time.
My mother asked him, “What madness drove you there? At least you should have informed us and taken a few people.”
He said, “You guys would not have let me go. I had spoken to Dau and he invited me to come and assured me that all problems will be solved by him. I didn’t know he will hold me back like this for no reason.”
Mother proudly said, “My son saved you. Today morning Dau spoke to him and then let you go.”
My father had suspicions. He asked, “Did you send him money?”
I smiled and replied, “No. Dau just wanted to tell me that he is doing a favor.”
Another event passed and I thanked God for not bringing a bigger damage. Then I settled to watch an alien movie on television. By now, I completely acknowledged that God had a very large role to play in this part of the world, unlike the West where he was busier in managing alien versus human affairs.
Next morning everyone was up before dawn. It was not a usual habit but seems we were very happy about a new day. Yesterday, Raju Mama had been in silent mood but today he was more talkative.
Raju mama said, “I was very anxious since yesterday morning. I accompanied Bhai Sahab (my father) to make sure no more harm happens.” Now this was usual Raju Mama- boasting and taking credit after the event. But we still had to discuss her wife’s call. I needed some time alone with him.
My father was in a light mood. He said, “Arre, nothing can happen to me while you guys are there?”
My mother was still whining, “What was the urge to go there? I am tired of both of them.” She shouted at my father.
He said, “Don’t fight now. Raju has come so far. Can you serve us tea? She makes really good tea.” At that compliment she smiled and went inside.
After a brief conversation between him and my father, Raju mama asked me, “Keep the tickets safely.”
I wanted a reason for such caution. Raju mama said, “I will tell you later.” He made a sign indicating privacy.
My father asked, “What will you do with the ticket? It has expired now.”
Raju mama said, “If I leave my farm for some work, many people want to know where I went. So I need to keep it. I have been away since yesterday.” He made it up.
I asked him, “Who other than Lucky Sardar will want to know your whereabouts?” He remained silent and uneasy. I left it for later. We didn’t have to wait very long for privacy. My father found some work in the garden and got very busy while mother was preparing breakfast for all.
Then I asked him, “What happened?”
He said, “Bhaiya, Lucky died in an accident last night. I had left him at the Paratha Dhaba.”
We knew instinctively that the story was much deeper. I said, “So this ticket shows that you had left Pipariya by train before the event. But, what about the two other men who accompanied him? And his jeep?”
Raju mama said, “Those two were just Sardar’s chharra. They vanished without trace as soon as they came to know about it.”
(‘Ch-har-ra’ is a Hindi term with the literal meaning of cartridges for a country pistol. Colloquially, it meant useless petty goons kept for company by folks like Sardar).
The he continued, “Police are trying to trace the jeep. But it is Dau’s area. In a few hours, they would have dismantled the jeep in thousand parts and sold the scrap. Many lower level policemen there are under his obligation. They will not find much in the investigation.”
I asked, “Won’t Dau let the police point its suspicion at you?”
He said, “No. Dau is a good person; they don’t trouble anyone innocent. And I was far away anyhow from this accident.”
There was some connection between Raju mama, Dau and this event. I felt a police enquiry could touch us, though we were very distant from the event and persons. I needed to know the full truth, though it was not the right time now.
I told Mama, “At least that Lucky Sardar won’t trouble you now.”
Raju Mama said, “Though it is not right to curse a dead person, but I am very relieved. The mother-f%@#r had made our life a hell. He won’t get anyone to even give fire to his dead body.”
In this region, and most of India, it was considered a great punishment if rituals after your death are not performed properly.
We left the conversation there. It was time for breakfast. Once we finished, I went out with him for a walk to a nearby park; it was usually isolated at this time of the day. We took a corner bench.
I asked, “When did you come to know of Sardar’s murder?” I didn’t use the term Accident. He realized it. Raju Mama said, “Today early morning, I called village from your home phone. They had heard about it as the news had travelled to the village.”
I said, “What happened? Tell me the full truth. I will only help you.”
There was a long silence. Then Raju Mama said, “Bhaiya, he had been ruining our life and reputation. Whatever happened, God will also forgive me. My loyalty was always with you.” I nodded in agreement.
Then he said, “Sardar got every detail of your calls through me. When the news of your father’s release from Dau’s grasp came, he thought over it for long. Then his two men took me to a field and threatened me with dire consequences if I did not play along. In return, they promised one lac rupees. They had wanted to eliminate your father with my help when the Safari carrying him came out of Pipariya on the highway. I did not understand much- either they were scared of your agreement with Dau or were trying to harm one of you. But in fear, I agreed then. I was supposed to meet your father in Pipariya and board the Safari. Then stop it at the Paratha Dhaba so that Lucky Sardar is able to check it and is satisfied. Then he was going to give instructions to his two Charras. They would have stopped us on road ahead somewhere.”
“Later in the day, I got a chance to write a note in toilet and slipped it to Mami ji. She called you when she got a chance. My plan was to tell Sardar later that everyone went by train instead, and I could do nothing as I did not know before. But after dropping Sardar at Dhaba, I reached Pipariya parking stand at seven p.m. Then I went to the Tea Stall in front of the station which is run by Dau’s hit man. I pleaded with him to connect me to Dau. Then I narrated everything to Dau. Dau told me to board the train and leave without any word to anyone. After that I don’t know what happened.” He had completed what he knew.
I asked, “What about your cell phone?”
He said, “Lucky Sardar had taken out the battery and left it at home. It was not used since yesterday after your call.”
“Hmmm,” I said, “would have been better if you had used it while traveling. But what has happened has happened. Now you should go back and cry loudly as if a dear one is gone.”
Raju Mama was already gearing up for the act. He said with full innocence, “Yes, a nice man departed.”
We sat silently for some more time. I pondered over the reaction the Sardars were going to give. It would reveal a lot about what the Sardars were. I knew that even if Sardars use police to investigate Dau, he was an old banyan tree with many roots and remote offshoots from administration to judges. He won’t be shaken so easily with half proofs. Then we went back to home.
Raju Mama left for his village. There, many stories of how Sardar was killed were floating. In the police FIR and post mortem tests, he was found heavily drunk, and hurt by an unidentified vehicle running over him. One rumor had it that his soft drink was spiked by the Dhaba owner before the jeep ran over him. Another one had it that he was hit on the head from behind, and then the jeep ran over. Once the immediate curiosity was over, the public did not have much interest in such events. After a few days, the search was abandoned; as no clues were found by the police.