Hot potato pakodas waited at home, as my mother prepared them on rainy days.
My father had been waiting to show his medical reports. He had been undergoing treatment for uneasiness and chest pain, but no severe blockages were found. He had been advised stomach acidity treatment, and also a small tissue growth was observed on one kidney. This growth had to be monitored for a few months. The doctor did not suspect it of being malignant, so he didn’t raise an alarm.
We enjoyed the pakodas and tea and then Tilak left. Tilak lived in the moment, having dissociated from the past. He had almost completed his duty towards Shafiq. He had no objectives left, just needed someone to absorb his time. And he was a loyal companion.
Meanwhile, Sooraj had not yet been done with the relaxation after the case verdict. He was traveling to many shrines in the north. Though he had not visibly shown any stress, it appeared that he had been under a lot. Now it was time to relax.
That night, I unwound. I first watching televisionfor some time. Then I picked up the first volume of The cultural heritage of India, published by Advait Ashram. It was a humongous and unbiased record keeping of the history and culture of this land, running into 10000 pages approximately.
Next morning, around nine, my father called me from the terrace, where we read newspaper and watered the plants. He said, “Some Mr.Vedi is on the phone, wants to speak to you.”
While I came down, my mother had picked the receiver and started talking to him. She was quite influenced by surnames and 'Vedi' probably tickled her religious bone. Upon seeing me, she reluctantly gave the receiver to me, finishing with, “I will send accurate date and time to you with Bharat, when he travels next time.” I could make out he had made inroads with some astrology talk.
I picked the receiver and said, “Hello, Vedi ji.”
He said, “Good morning. I had wanted to call since a long time but could not.”
I said, “Tell me, what I can do for you?” It was an Indian way of courtesy, but did not mean any loss of stature.
Vedi said, “What happened between the tribals and truck drivers? We have never had any issues before. The drivers informed of your presence also.” I admired his maturity. He was straight.
I said, “Yes. I was there. The insulting tone of that driver led to a petty problem and then long held grouse of Nagbaba and other tribals with these drivers came out. I think the issue ended with the punctures.”'
He said, “So you think it will not happen again.”
I said, “I think it might happen often. You cannot fix the drivers and their habits, or the tribals’ anger with these outsiders. I cannot mend their views either; any counseling will be futile.”
He said, “I can help you in your debts. But need your help also.”
This bargain was put quite early, to my surprise. It seemed that they had a lot of trouble and loss in getting things moving again.
I said, “Your offer is generous. But in this matter, I am clueless. As far as I understand, Nagbaba and others have a fairly independent mind and would refute any suggestions. You suggest what can I do?”
He said, “I have no suggestion. But the government would not let the operation be hampered due to such petty issues.”
I said, “Everyone knows that the license is legal, and I don’t think they can have issues with legal quarries. But tribals also suspect a lot of illegal activity. I don’t think any official would use his pen in this matter. You need to work on the drivers.”
Without mentioning, I had put the elephant of illegal lorries in the bargaining room. The truck driver issue seemed a small rat now.
He said, “I must say you are a brave person. You don’t fear for your life.”
I smiled and said, “There was a time when I cared for my life, but Dau missed the shot back then. Looking back, then my life had a lot of value to me but it had little value to others. Now, I don’t associate much value to it but others are finding it quite valuable, probably you will also. Without my calm demeanor, you would face a lot more challenging and physical opposition from tribals. You would surely be dumped underground by Sardars if the operations disrupt for a few months.'
He said, “Think of a mutually beneficial solution.”
I told him, “Let’s talk after three days. Let me think and see what can go with Nagbaba.” Then I hung up.
My mother had been standing close and hearing my part of the conversation. She could not make out much from it. She just said, “What does he do? He has such refined language and knows a lot about astrology.”
I told her, “Do not come in his trap. Only his tongue is sweet.”
She protested, “Then why did you have a long conversation with him.” It was impossible to reason with her. I said, “Please mother. I need a nice tea.”
Next day, Nagbaba had been informed to call me. I discussed the proposal with him once more. I wanted them to take over the truck operations. We both understood that stopping them was futile. It would not hold for more than a few days. But we could grab the control. If nothing else, I thought we should use the money for some basic work in the villages.
He said, “Bhaiya, we don’t understand the guile and motives of these men. I have started feeling the old age now. I would not start anything that leaves the village with problems after me. If you are around, we will take this work.”
I told him, “Baba, as far as my path is concerned, I cannot see beyond the search for Tulsi. But in case we don’t like this arrangement at any stage, we can dissociate from this work.”
Then he asked me to manage the income. He said, “I am more comfortable with snakes around me than any money.” I said in jest, “Your daughter is Lakshmi, one day she was going to attract it.” Then I told him about my meeting with Mr.Thakur, and asked him to ready ten men for the training in Pachmarhi next week.
Two days later, Vedi called. I told him, “In my view, the best solution would be to replace the drivers with tribal men. They can drive in the forest terrain. Then you switch to other drivers. These guys are very honest and hard working, unlike your current staff. You also get some goodwill in the area.”
He thought for a while and said, “If it’s workable, we can try. What will be the costs?”
I said, “You currently pay three hundred for an eight hour shift. The rate is fine. But for extra working hours, add the overtime. Also, add fifty thousand per month in lump sum to be paid for providing the services. Dues have to be paid every week on Thursday. You can pay in cheque and deduct taxes.”
He said, “That’s far more expensive than our current payment. We make deductions for every error from the dues of these drivers.” It was true. These boys were without any home or backing and were ruthlessly used. For a moment, I felt guilty for stealing their bread.
But I firmed up. I said, “How come you cannot smell a good deal? You know the advantages beyond cost. I cannot mediate more in this matter.”
I knew he was counting on corrupting the tribal minds with small money. It would have been an achievement, and that’s how he would sell the deal to his bosses. He said, “When can they start? I will need thirty persons on duty.”
I said, “I suggest next Friday.”
He said, “But we will pay only cash. It’s a hassle keeping books of accounts.” It was a hassle indeed but more problematic was keeping books of account for illegal operations. That brought me to the last point.
I said, “You can pay cash to the village trust. They will distribute. Also, as far as they are concerned, the legality of logs and mines trucks will be your headache. You have to bear that in mind.”
It didn’t trouble Vedi. He had complete confidence in the power of money over poor and the game it was going to play in their minds.
I had a different belief. I thought that living with Mother Nature dented the influence of Maya over the minds. Vedi's beliefs were my best ally. He was blind to the risk of handing over the last layer of operations to us.
That day, I made a chart of organization needed for this work. At the very top was some kind of body or trust that would be responsible for the money. It was going to take some effort to find people for it. Also we would need a trained accountant. I called up Sooraj. He was in the last leg of his pilgrimage.
I said, “We have some accounting position. Need someone trusted and experienced to handle the money.” Then I explained the work. He gladly agreed without much surprise or reluctance.
Three days later, I again left for Nagbaba's village. It was a Tuesday, still two days remaining to plan the logistics. By Wednesday, we were ready with forty persons, drawn from five different villages. Ten extra were for managing leaves. They knew driving but needed some practice to manage small lorries. Most of them didn’t have a license to drive, but it hardly mattered.
There was a long debate about the amount to be paid for this work. The elders didn’t want to create a financial divide in the villages. It was another matter when young went out to cities and earned. They hardly saved anything. But here, it was another matter.
Finally it was decided that those working here as drivers were to get three thousand rupees a month. The families were briefed to carefully save as much as possible, and not splurge in the weekly barter market.
Then a six member unofficial trust was formed to be the custodian of the money. Nagbaba did not join it, instead put my name in it. The rest were elders taken from different villages. There was a lot of excitement about this trust thing. No one understood what it was supposed to do but that news that a body of six persons had been formed was a talking point amongst in distant villages.
Mr.Vedi had sent a messenger on Thursday informing us of delay on his part. Our work would now start two days later than scheduled. He had identified a ground near the highway where the exchange of drivers would happen. He also sent the first week's advance, an amount of Rupees One lac and twenty one thousand, an auspicious figure. But there was no place to keep cash. Lakshmi gave a cooking vessel that was used as a temporary vault.
All day on Thursday, I and Bajrang worked to prepare a list of ten men who would go to Pachmarhi. Their photos and identity cards were collected. Then I sent Bajrang to Mr.Thakur's office in Hoshangabad with the documents.
That evening, I spent time with Lakshmi teaching her. I explained India's geography. Many children had gathered. They were quite keen to listen again and again about the sea, and how a sea looked like. Some had their own versions of it, and the monsters out there. I slept before their tales got exhausted.
The first meeting of the trust was held on Friday morning under the village banyan tree. The purpose was to explain what this trust would do. The trust would basically approve the activities that generated income for the villages, and then approve expenses and investments.
Though there were supposed to be six of us, but I could count at least a hundred folks. Folks had been instrumental in spreading the news of this meeting. But this crowd was a distraction. They were capable of sitting silently for hours like this.
Nagbaba was not around. Of late he had been very busy with incidents of snake bites. There was seldom a casualty but still he had to go when called.
I had to think of something to get the crowd away. After due thought, I decided to try one trick. I called Lakshmi with her register and pen. Then I announced, “I am quite happy to see so much interest in what we are planning. We will now have a meeting that will take some decisions. All those who wish to attend the meeting today, Lakshmi will take your name and village. Please sign or put your thumb impression on the register, as a mark of attendance.”
My trick worked. I could instantly see the crowd chipping away very fast. These guys had such mistrust of papers and signs or thumb, and for genuine reasons. Starting from the tale of Eklavya, the mistrust continued to the modern day lawyers. Even the five trustees got up and looked uneasy, ready to move. They were relieved once told that their thumb impressions were not required.
I realized that forming a legal body was going to be a challenge here. These guys will not sign up for any legal structure. On top of it, the process and legalities to open a trust were full of red tape. Keeping that worry for later, we started our meeting.
I explained the income of above five lacs a month and then all the expenses. Then I asked them to give suggestions on how to spend the remaining cash. One of them said, “Bhaiya, we do not have much understanding. Whatever you and Nagbaba decide, we will go with that.”
I nodded. “Still whatever comes to your mind, let it be known at this group. It is quite possible that God speaks through you, so we cannot ignore any thoughts.” I said. They all agreed.
Further, on my advice, Sooraj was hired to keep account books, and to complete the legal formalities of forming a trust. I also decided that we will take one acre somewhere in the village to make premises for keeping cash and records and meetings, and housing guests like me and Sooraj and others. With that, the meeting ended.
In evening, I apprised Nagbaba about the last two day's proceedings. Bajrang had also returned with the news that the men were to reach Pachmarhi on Monday. Mr.Thakur had arranged a retired training officer and a vacant area in Pachmarhi hills to give them a week's training. We just had to pay for tents and food.
After a tea, we went around the village and then surveyed about an acre of land next to Tulsi's vacant compound. There was a lot of tall grass there. It was a day's work to clear it. That led us to fix a daily wage rate of hundred rupees for hiring anyone for trust's work. It was the same as what they got as labor in government work, after deductions by contractors and the cut for officials.
It was getting dark, and children in the village were getting ready for another session. Their thirst for stories from outside world was unquenchable. But it had to wait for sometime as Nagbaba wanted to discuss something.
He said, “What will you do with the extra money? It should not be left to accumulate.”
I said, “We will need some for things like this training. We can use some to cover the expenses for finding Tulsi. Beyond it, I can think of planning higher education for some children, and bringing doctors and medication.”
Nagbaba said, “Bhaiya, you settle your debts with remaining amount.”
Bajrang intervened, “Bhaiya, please get an elephant hole made in the river. There will be enough drinking water all of summer then.”
Such works required heavy earth moving machinery to be hired. Bajrang had worked as labor on many such projects. His idea gave me a spring instantly. There was so much to do. I told Nagbaba I needed some time to study and form a plan.
Next eight weeks went by without much change. Our premises were ready in a week. It had two rooms for guests, one elevated platform for meetings, and one room for office. The rooms, like all other huts, had walls on three sides. The open side was facing the compound. The toilets were made a small distance away.
Now, I stayed in the village for most of the time; reading books, making a list of projects to do and following up on Tulsi's matter. Sooraj and Tilak came once a week. Sooraj wanted to employ Mr.Mishra, the government clerk he had befriended in jail.
He said, “Bhaiya, can Mishra ji live here and keep the accounts. He has been out and alone and needs some work. I will visit once in a week and monitor his work.”
I knew Mishra ji's background. A victim of corrupt officials, he had served his term. He seemed a less brainy guy, in colloquial sense. In most of the country, brainy meant someone who can outsmart the processes or manage the outcome.
I said, “He can work here but we can’t pay extra. It will be out of your salary. And he can be removed without notice.”
Sooraj said, “Bhaiya, give half of my salary to him. Also you can deduct his lodging expenses. I will manage with the rest.”
I guessed that Sooraj had been trying to earn more by taking up some contracts in Bhopal. He could use the spare time and freedom. I had no issues.
Then he asked, ‘Would anyone here have problem with Mishra ji’s past?”
I said, ‘No. When God and Government do not have a problem with his existence, folks here are much more accepting.”
A week later, Mishra ji arrived. He occupied one room. He was old and bent beyond his age, and walked slowly. But unlike most here, he had a routine. He would reach the office room sharp at nine a.m., and sit there even if alone. His presence brought hat discipline and seriousness to the office. He took to the village like fish takes to water, quickly establishing a conversation with most people. It was clear that he relished his feeling of being in work again.
Another fact about Mishra ji was that he could drink as much as offered. And I had changed my opinion about his brain. He had a busy and observing mind that could lose reason if enticed. I often spent some time with him. One night, while Tilak, Nagbaba and a few others were sitting around a fire in our premises and enjoying a roasted grams and Mahua, Mishra ji said, “Bhaiya, if this cash accumulation goes on for a few months, we will need to form a Trust.” I already had that thought in mind though it was not an immediate worry.
I said, “We need a reason for the Trust. Cash donations only come to religious ones or to God men.”
Tilak suggested, “Then, form a Trust for Devi. We will bring a deity here and establish her.”
I said in a lighter vein, “No. We cannot have a religious trust. It will make the Religious organizations jealous. We need some miracle performing God man to appear from somewhere. But how will the One discover this village?’
Nagbaba said, “Do not despair. Lord Ram will take care. He is inside us all the time. I can prove.” We were listening.
He said, “Close your eyes. Now think about a beautiful moment of life.” We did likewise.
Then he asked, “Who was controlling your mind and directing it?”
Tilak said, “The Soul.” Nagbaba said, “Yes. This soul is a part of God. He helps you to control your mind and body and choose your path.”
Then he sang, instantly arousing Mishra ji and others to give chorus:
“jaake hriday bhagti jasi preeti, prabhu tah pratak sada tehi riti; ….hari vyapak sarvatra samana, prem te pratak hohi main jana…” (Lord appears to anyone depending on how one devotes and loves Him; …He is present everywhere, but one needs love in his heart to see Him.)
The scene remained drowned in Bhakti for some time.
When it subsided, Mishra ji again said, “Bhaiya, Nagbaba can take the role of God man. He will gain a lot of followers too.”
Nagbaba waived his head in refusal. I said, “He doesn’t want anyone following him. Besides, he can go silent for days, lost in jungle. And he can’t fake it like God men you have seen.”
Mishra ji said, ‘Then we will have to send money outside this place to hide it.”
That got to me. Mishra ji was very worried about the money. I asked, “Mishra ji, why are we accumulating this money, do you know?” He nodded in ignorance.
“Then why are you bothered about its use.” I said in stiff voice. I did not want to share with him that the goal of this cash flow was to stop this cash flow itself.
I continued, “And one more thing. This money does not belong to us or to Nagbaba or to anyone. Take it as God’s loan to help us find some path. I can see that you are troubled by the thoughts of money. You can leave this place but cannot give in to such thoughts.”
It was some shock for Mishra ji. And a surprise to many others apart from Nagbaba and Tilak, as the steel of my mind hardly got exposed, even to myself.That ended the party that night. I didn’t think that Mishra ji could ever overcome the glare of money, but that warning would have helped him take his eyes away.