All the Chapters of the Book are now published here.

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For Chapters 2 to 6, and 28, please see the August, 2016 section below. Rest of the Chapters are in May, 2020 section below.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Chapter 32: Ravan's wisdom

Life with insecure characters is never short of excitement. It was another such day.
By the time, we finished the photocopy and returned to Revaram's hut, it was seven p.m.. It was quite dark due to clouds. Revaram had the bullock cart ready; it seemed he had been eagerly waiting for us.
He had some news for us, “Babuji, three persons had come by a white vehicle. Now they are in Nagbaba's hut. The vehicle is parked there. I have sent a person with them.  He returned and told me to inform you that Dau is here.”
Upon hearing that, Raju mama first froze, then bolted. Bajrang caught his hand and held him. I shouted, “Raju Mama, listen. He is alone here, surrounded by hostile persons. He is not a danger here.”
But Raju Mama was already sobbing in panic, “Bhaiya, save me. He has come for me. I had left my house on your advice.”
The scene of shouting and crying went on for a few minutes. Raju Mama had lost his senses in panic.
I asked Tilak, “We can’t take him like this, and can’t leave him without facing Dau. He will die of panic.”
Tilak said, “Bhaiya, if you permit, I can bring out the ghost.” I said, “Okay.”
Tilak told Bajrang, “Brother, leave some space to warm him up.”
Tilak took out up a small branch from Revaram's fence. The clear space had been created by Bajrang. Before we could grasp, in a swift motion, he slapped the branch tightly on Raju Mama's right thigh, just below the buttocks. With that, Raju Mama forgot panicking, instead focused on his shooting pain. “Aiee, aiee,” he screamed. All present couldn’t help but laugh at the scene.
In a few moments, his pain subsided. Lying on the wet grass, he made his judgment known, “Tilak, your intentions were good but should have shown some softness. Anyways, I forgive you.”
Tilak said, “Raju Mama, you are a wonderful person.” With that, we started the bullock cart journey.
On the way, Raju Mama kept guessing what would have brought Dau here. He pleaded to me many times, “Bhaiya, you do something so that this Dau stops following us.” Many times I nodded.
Once Tilak intervened, “Raju Mama, he is not following us, he is after you.” Raju Mama retorted, “You don’t understand. Bhaiya has understood what I am implying.” I nodded to calm his nerves.
But Tilak was enjoying the banter, and getting dangerously close to Raju Mama's secret. He asked, “But Raju Mama, why is Dau after you?”
I interrupted, as Raju Mama went silent. I said, “Dau is after his money. Raju Mama is under his debt just like us.”
That evoked a strong sympathy for a common cause. Tilak didn’t delve further, and stopped troubling Raju Mama.
By the time we crossed the last stream before Nagbaba's hut, Lakshmi had comfortably slept in the bullock cart. In the dim lantern light, her skinny small frame looked at sharp contrast to her satisfied face. Here was resting a person completely satisfied and having taken a giant stride today in some mission she had aimed for. All of Nagbaba's worries had got into her head, and she was on her way to solve them. I tried to wake her up, but she would open her eyes, fidget and go back to sleep. Then I asked Bajrang, “Bajrang, I can’t find the books; looks like we have left them somewhere.”  After a few moments, she got up searching for the books.
I don’t know why, but my thoughts went to Muniya. The images flashed when I had first saw her in the shanty next to desi wine shop. I had to find her soon.
Just before we entered the compound, I told Raju Mama sternly, “Do not overreact, and do not show any undue courtesy.”
Raju Mama nodded. Yet I was not convinced. I whispered to Tilak to issue a threat. He just said, “Raju Mama, I will be next to you with a lathi, just in case we see you panicking or even nervous.”  I hoped this diversion would hold.
Many folks had gathered in Nagbaba's compound. On one charpoy, Dau sat, very distinguishable in his white kurta pajama and white hair. Around him sat his elder son and brother. About three men from the village had also stopped by while Nagbaba was chatting with Dau. There were two other tribal men, I had not come across earlier. These tribals were in regular touch with Dau or lived around his village. They had come along so that the forest tribals do not get alarmed.
I shook hands with Dau, his son and brother. It was a far departure from the protocol we had been made to follow when I had visited his mansion. I sensed that despite being shown courtesy, the vibes in the village were hostile to the three of them, and even to the tribals that had come with him. There was a long held belief of exploitation and cruelty by folks likes Dau.
Another charpoy was brought from a nearby hut. I sat on it while all others preferred to stand. Nagbaba watched silently from the verandah.
I asked everyone for a round of tea.  I warned them it would be milk free, sugar less black tea. But weather and tension made everyone agree. It broke the tense ice. Then I asked Lakshmi to make a lot of tea from my packet, and use disposable paper cups that were in my bag.
In his deep old man's voice, Dau asked Raju Mama, “Raju, what are you doing here?”
Dau had been en expert, just like a tiger, to sense the weakest prey's fluttering heart. He directly looked at the prey and had asked.  For a moment, I thought of interfering. The next outcome could have Nagbaba and his men acting on my cue and pushing Dau and his kin, out of the village and forest.
But then I thought that it was Raju Mama's test. He had to pass it, and decide the course of events.
I think many such thoughts would have gone around in many minds. But silence from me or Nagbaba must have given him our decision.
Raju Mama replied, “Dau, I am roaming around with Bhaiya. But what are you doing here?”
Dau's son asked in reply, “Did roaming around also include going to police station?”
There it was- the suspicion that had brought them here. The aggressive son also had an anxious streak.  I think Dau had sensed after Raju Mama's reply that none of our activities were about him. But before he could turn the conversation, the son had betrayed the weakness.
Raju Mama replied, “Bhaiya went to the station to write some complaint.”
The son looked at me and asked, “What happened?”His tone was still stern.
I smiled, looked at Nagbaba who also smiled. Then I said, “Friend, it is our internal matter. But I have understood what brought you here, and troubles you.”
Nagbaba looked at the outside tribals and asked in his dialect, “Didn’t you tell these friends of your to behave well, in this place?”
I could not decipher what he said, but most of those present could. The shoulders of the two tribals dropped. They didn’t look up thereafter, gazing only at the ground. Their body language told me that they were asking for pardon.
Dau was silent. I spoke, “Dau, I don’t have anything against you. Folks who live here have some animosity but it is a matter of perception. It is based on their bad experience with Raja who is your puppet. But that is another matter. For now, you have peace of mind. As long as Raju Mama is safe from any harm, we have no memory or knowledge of anything.'
I didn’t want to be explicit. There were far too many curious folks listening. Dau agreed with a comment, “Let us talk later.”
I said, “Why don’t you stay for dinner. Let most people go after tea.” Meanwhile, tea cups were being served to all by Tilak and Lakshmi.
By the time we finished tea, it was nine p.m. Other villagers left the matters to us.
Nagbaba, Raju Mama, Bajrang, I and Tilak had a short conversation in the open yard behind the hut.
Raju Mama asked, “Why did you ask him to stay back?”
I answered, “I offered and he agreed. That means both sides might have something left to talk about.”
Bajrang asked, “But he is not considered welcome here. What can you or us gain from him?”
I don’t know why such questions irritated me. I thought that being resentful of anything new or unforeseen had been a cultural trait that had closed down the tribal's explorer spirits for centuries.
I answered with an anecdote Bajrang would understand.  I explained, “You all answer my question. When Ravana was dying, what did Lord Ram tell Lakshman?'  Raju Mama was quick to answer, “Go take his blessings. He might have been evil and chosen the wrong path that brought his end, but he is one of the most learned beings.”
I could sense that they were all ready to hear the full tale, even if lasted the whole night. Such was the lure of Ramayana. But I had to come to the point. I said, “Whatever Dau is, he can have something valuable to share?”
While stating that, I had no doubt on Dau's capabilities. His strength was fading fast, primarily due to his ill trained next generation, but he had been a regional satrap for twenty years, having direct access to ministers in Delhi and Bhopal. He commanded, and genuinely in many cases, the allegiance of a few hundred men for whom his word was final. I could bet that his time was over once the mobile phones came and people started looking beyond local exploitative networks. Already, people had started exploring more options, be it in marriages, or lawyers or loans. It was another matter that many sharks awaited them outside also.
That anecdote dispelled their doubts; rather evoked some eagerness to be a part of our next conversation.
A small campfire was made in the backyard of Nagbaba's hut. The weather was cool but not damp. Next to the fire, Lakshmi sat with the large brinjals, and flour. Roasted brinjal bharta and baati was the menu for dinner. Nagbaba sat on a stone near fire, to listen and help keep the fire for Lakshmi.  Bajrang found a small stone to sit on in the dark while Raju Mama was helping Lakshmi arrange the food on tendu leaf plates. There were plenty of them to accommodate even a large party.
The tension in the group had considerably eased but everyone hesitated to say anything. Nagbaba had left me to discuss without interfering in matters, trusting me to use his shadow for good use.
For all others except me, Lakshmi and Dau, Nagbaba was an ordinary person in many ways. For Lakshmi, Nagbaba was like a father who bore a great responsibility and was like a king. For me, he was a guru who had revealed his learning at the right time to pull me out of a mental quicksand. For Dau, he was someone who could change the game anytime, a game of power and money that Dau was part of.
Dau opened the conversation, asking me “Now that your troubles are over, what you plan to do next? You know now that here nothing will progress.” Apparently, he had been tracking the court and insurance matters.
I answered, “I won’t find a suitable work here or in Bhopal. I will start a search for one in Mumbai. But first, I have to finish another task before leaving.” Then I narrated the task briefly but honestly - including why Tulsi had vanished from my home.  I said, “Its a duty I must perform before taking a new path. But have no clue where to start. We have just filed the missing person complaint, as a precaution.”
Now he knew why we had gone to the police station today.  I could see the relief on Dau's son's and brother's face.
Dau sat silent cross legged, closed his eyes for a couple of minutes, as if in deep meditation. They were curious moments for all as it was abnormal. Then all of sudden he started speaking, without opening his eyes. He said, “It is likely that you will find them in a metro city.  Wherever you spot one of them, you should be very cautious and not react. If one of them is spotted alone, then the other one will be nearby but separated for precaution. You search for both and swiftly take them away to safety. You have to be very cautious else you will lose one or both permanently if they have fallen prey to the mafia.”
He fell silent and opened his eyes. I asked, “Shouldn’t we inform the police and ask for a meeting with them, if they are spotted?”
He said, again closing his eyes, “No. You will lose them. Police at lower levels and even a few higher ups have a lot of compromised elements. They would share information with the human trafficking mafia. Even ten minutes notice is enough for them to move the two. Ask me how many policemen in this region sympathize with me and share advance information. I have paid to get so many recruited in the ranks. Don’t go to police. And be ready to be very brutal if anyone tries to stop you. Don’t have mercy.”
I asked, “But I don’t know how to be brutal and when to react?”
He replied, “These folks know when to react at slightest of danger, they have grown up in forests. And they are brutal when fearful. If you are not brutal with the first person who resists, then they will chase you all the way till here. By now, they must have known where she is from.”
I asked, “But what are the chances that your premonition comes true? She could as well be working as a construction labor or domestic help somewhere.” 
He said, “It is not a premonition. I have white hair for some reason. I am a tantrik also. But for now I will use your brain to explain. Nine out of ten such women end up in the hands of human mafia. Even if they start their survival with hard labor, one viral fever or diarrhea or malaria will set them back enough to be indebted. Such a debt is the direct path first to slavery and then to trafficking. But do not lose courage just by what I say. The women from tribal areas and nomadic tribes know the value of freedom. They would end their lives rather than living without dignity. So you might find them begging and performing stunts and doing hard labor, rather than being trafficked. Even having a hungry child won’t change that resolve.”
I said, “You know a lot about this business.”
Raju Mama added, “It is said that if someone makes an eye contact with Dau, Dau will read his mind.”
For the first time, he smiled and said, “I have seen many things in life. My father was a freedom fighter and a very learned pundit. He was very devoted to the leaders of that time. When India got freedom, he also got rewarded with political posts. Our family also got licenses to large coal mines and wood contracts. Till he was alive, it was a good time for us. But he passed away when I was young and my brothers were small. I got the mantle but I had to bargain very hard to keep my position. It was the survival of the strongest. I even lost two brothers in separate shootings. It has been a hard fight. In return, the payoffs have been small. ‘They’ take away a lot for giving favors. Still we have ruled here for long. My time will soon be over but it will be difficult for my sons to maintain the same status.”
The food served on tendu leaf plates was ready. As it was being laid for each person, I continued, “The feeling of entitlement is a dangerous friend. It makes one feel good but blinds him to the changes around.” It was for his sons and brother.
But his son deflected the thought. He said, “A tiger's child has no choice but to share the destiny of being a tiger. The whole jungle hates them and loves them at the same time. It is the case with anyone who has the role of balancing the equation.”
The last three words evoked memories of one of my favorite movies. I interpreted what he meant as-‘Exploitative men were part of our complex society, without whom those deemed good would not have enough respect. Hence these were two sides of a coin and worked for mutual existence, balancing the equation.’
I had no interest in contesting the son's views. I had multiple questions in my head for Dau. But he and all others were busy now in the dinner.
I also picked up a baati, applied some bharta on it, and took a bite. It was heaven. I had already become an avid fan of tribal delicacies but this one beat them all. I wondered how they created magic without oil, salt or spices with just fire cooked brinjal and wheat flour.
I ate till the stomach could take no more. I guessed everyone did the same. Raju Mama brought out a bundle of bidi and offered to all. Nagbaba, Bajrang took the offer. They would never abandon a chance of smoking bidis.
I asked Dau, “Where do we search for Tulsi?”
Dau's brother replied, “During daytime, you will find these folks working on major traffic lights, or working in street side markets, or sitting at shops. For children, there are more tasks from tea stalls to hotels or collection of bottles and specific fine stuff from garbage dumps. At night you can’t find them so easily.”
Dau said, “Also first check the peetha (daily wage labor gathering point) and construction sites. God willing I should be wrong in my assessment.”
I felt that Dau had given us a genuine advice. I always had an impression that he was a straight talker. I decided to clear a long pending doubt and asked, “Do you know who would have tried to harm me? General opinion suspected your men to be involved.”
Those who were getting comfortable to doze off got alert. But Dau was unfazed, and decided to remove the doubt. “Your suspicion seems well directed. But it would not stand a chance in courts,” Dau said, confirming my statement.
There was a brief silence. While I was wondering over the reason, Dau patiently waited for my next logical question. I could see the uneasiness around, except in Nagbaba. We three understood that this acceptance did not evoke any anger or feeling of revenge.
If one entered a snake's comfort zone, he was going to be attacked, but after the incident, there could not be any reason for rage.
It was my grave mistake that I had not understood it before coming in Dau’s danger zone. But now I did not feel any fear as I felt a power over him. The power was that such folks were not going to change me.
I asked, “What was the threat?”
Dau continued to answer, much to dislike of his son. I listened as he said, “When someone sets up even a small shop in our area, he takes our blessings. Very few people dare to avoid us, but they have some other backing. Your storage operations were going to hurt our mandi cartel in future. Yet that was not my worry. I had been wondering who was behind you because you could ignore us. I thought Sardars have moved a few pawns - this time some educated folks. Your small cars and no show of power, and modest parentage only confirmed the pawn theory. We threatened Lucky Sardar and he counter threatened us with dire consequences. Our suspicion deepened. The men were set out that night to teach you a lesson and make you run away. But once you hid with Nagbaba here, we decided that you have more visiting cards than our knowledge. Our thought changed to final act. But God had His will imposed.”
He continued, “After meeting you, I dropped my suspicions, and did not even try my hand in the case. Else, it was not entirely beyond me to get your case listed in the court of a known judge. After all, we have spent fifty years helping careers. You may have got justice eventually, but after taking away fifteen years of your time. All your new found friends, and your IITians and those IIM folks would have been of no use.” He said deepening his voice.
He continued, “To clarify one more doubt, we didn’t burn your facilities. There was no more suspicion about your masters, and I was not worried about the small loss of face.  You can suspect Lucky Sardar for this arson. He had many more insecurities.”
I nodded in agreement. There was a brief silence. It was end of my queries.
The mention of Lucky Sardar had made Raju mama animated. He said, “Lucky Sardar was a curse for all.” He didn’t have anything more to say.
I replied, “I don’t think so. Whatever he was, he was not doing his work effectively. His replacement, Vedi, will write the obituaries of this beautiful village and of rivals like Dau much faster and without much fuss.”
“How can you say that?” Dau's son asked.
I said, “I have heard that a lot many trucks are going out now days, with logs and ore. It had never happened before in monsoons.  He has got the official machinery well greased. Imagine what will happen once rains are over and his formal legal quota also starts.”
The son asked, “That doesn’t answer my question?”
I said, “Can’t you see the difference? Lucky Sardar also had the same solid backing in dealing with official machinery. But he was wasting his time in personal battles, feeding on rumors, troubling Raju Mama, womanizing and drinking. This Vedi hasn’t wasted any time. He is already busy in increasing the profits. He hasn’t bothered about the case of Lucky Sardar. He will ruthlessly chase his profits and in that process, wipe others out. Given the ease with which his networks work within administration, it’s going to be a cakewalk.”
There was again a long silence. My thought went to Mr.Thakur. While he was an honest fellow, he would be definitely aware of Vedi's activities and yet looked the other way. It was a puzzle.
It was midnight now. Dau shuffled to relax his body..
Dau said, “Bhaiya, what do you suggest?” His tone was very personal. It took some time for me and others around to absorb the shock of him calling me ‘Bhaiya’. It meant that I had reached or surpassed his level in his eyes.
I looked at Raju Mama, and said, “Raju Mama, see if there is a chance for a tea.”  Everyone agreed to a cup. Raju Mama got down to the job happily. I guessed he was overjoyed by Dau's gesture.
It reminded me of my hostel days, and the mid night break when the whole lot would collect around the canteen in the name of group discussion. And it would end up with a daily argument on who would foot the tea bill. 
Raju Mama had managed to clean a pot and sat down in front of the mud choolah to make tea.
I said, “Dau, after a long time, your family fortune wheel has turned downward. Perhaps, your next generation learned too much from you, a lot more than what can be undone now. The amount of money that is made using your tactics is way less than what newer institutions like Sardars make. So the power has already shifted. The best approach would be to lie low, and reinvent your old strength. Else it is a matter of time before you spend the remaining strength.”
Dau's son seemed uneasy but Dau asked, “But how do we reinvent new strength?”
It was a million dollar question. What I said then has ever surprised me and Nagbaba as well. I had been reading a lot, but had never understood the depths they were taking me to.
I answered, “Dau, I believe there is only one way of gaining strength, which is to be on the right side. All the power and money that you gained over time had its roots in your father being a freedom fighter. Your early roles as weak folks' custodian also gave you strength. But the day your loyalty changed to power and money, I feel your strength started leaving, first morally then physically. Most people dear to you will not be able to understand this, and change. So you will need to ride the downfall with minimum harm and come out again.”
His son said, “You do not understand our power in our area. No one can reduce our influence.”
I said, “You do not understand your weakness. Even God won’t have so much confidence in permanency as you have.”
There was a long silence. I mulled over what had been said, unaware that Nagbaba had also been mulling over it, and so was Dau. Tea was served and consumed.
Dau got up and said, “Let us go now.” 
Nagbaba instructed Bajrang to get the cart ready. He woke up the bullocks and put the cart handle on them. We shook hands, and then the three of them left with Bajrang on the cart.
Our beds were laid on the floor inside the hut. Nagbaba told the two dogs to sleep on two sides. He explained, “In this season, snakes come near to beds seeking warmth. They will keep a watch.”
I pondered in bed.  Those days in hostels, and so many years of global jobs did not seem sufficient to prepare me for this world.
Then I thought about Dau. He had deep roots to start with and once upon a time was set to become the chief minister. Yet after forty years of dominance, he had no answers for future. The world changed continuously and faster now. Where we begin and what we have was going to be more and more inconsequential. Wherever Nagbaba's troubles stood today, the possibility of overcoming the challenges was ever present. With that thought, I relaxed and dozed off.

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