The day passed without much news. By seven, it got dark and the Delhi fog started settling.
Tulsi was still working at the junction. Our car and men were ready to follow her, but were unsure which direction she would take. Soon the three women gathered near a point and started their begging there. Most likely, they were done for the day and were eagerly waiting to go back and meet their children or have food. It was a good enough observation to position our car and team.
After a while, they boarded an auto parked there. The gunner noted the auto details, just in case we needed it in future. It wasn’t clear if that auto rickshaw was being used by the mafia or was just there waiting to be hired.
Meanwhile, I asked rest of the teams to return to their rooms. The Innova followed the auto till Chandni Chowk. Then it lost the trail as the auto rickshaw went inside a narrow crowded lane. The Innova kept moving. The driver informed us that the narrow lanes were watched by Nigerians and many other African nationals, who were hired by local mafia. There was no point in driving inside as this vehicle stood no chance of going unnoticed even in the crowd there.
Broadly we knew now what every local policeman, administrator, politician and judge knew - that these were the dens hosting trafficking mafia. The most powerful and coveted of India lived just a few kilometers away, ignorant of this malice in their backyard. I stopped the train of thought; it would only bring grief. I could not care less about the state of affairs of the nation when the pain felt for a trafficked girl child had been more important to me.
That night, we regrouped. It appeared that the teams had covered roughly half of the targeted crossings. It was decided to continue the same effort next day.
I normally used to sleep well. But that night, I kept on turning and tossing in the bed. Some random thoughts kept troubling. At five in the morning, Tilak woke me up. He said, “Bhaiya, I feel I should go inside that lane. I can appear as one of the folks found loitering in such areas.”
I said, “Okay.” I opened the old Delhi map. It appeared that the lane would be about half a kilometer long at most. There were several by lanes which no vehicle could enter. None of them appeared longer than two hundred meters. Along these lanes, there were old buildings. I had heard about old cities, but labyrinths of old Delhi were famous.
We decided that Tilak would start his survey of the Lahori lane, just after five pm. By then, we would know the progress for the day. He was to coordinate with the team watching Tulsi, and figure out which by lane and how far into it she went.
Then both of us slept for some more time.
The teams left as planned. I went to the hospital. My father looked very weak but had been talking. The staff asked me to pay the dues and get him discharged. I deposited the balance amount, leaving the insurance coverage.
The hospital bills were sent to the TPA but no response came from their side in next four hours. It was an everyday situation at the Insurance counter. Finally, the account administrator called for me and asked, “We are short of beds. These TPAs will not process your insurance unless you know someone there. But we can’t wait more before discharging. You arrange the balance amount and then send the bills to the Insurance Company.”
I said, “Sir, I would not mind paying for an extra night. But we need time to arrange the eighty thousand due from insurance. Before we came here, everyone including the TPA desk at the hospital promised fast processing. Now they are blaming it on software, TPA, bandwidth and others. But I can’t help it.”
He could read that I was not a pushover like most small town folks he dealt with every day. He still tried, “If you stay here for four more days, the new amount would equal the due from Insurance.”
I said, “I will try to get it processed till the third day. Then we will go with whatever is due.”
He then called up our doctor on the intercom, spoke to him and gave the line to me. This was emotional tactic, knowing that we felt indebted to the doctor. The doctor tried his bit with me, “One patient like your dad needs a surgery and a bed.”
I interrupted, “Doctor saheb, we didn’t plan for this cash as you know. We can clear the bed and I can leave a post dated cheque and our belongings but need time to arrange this amount. Meanwhile, we will be after the TPA to process.”
Then I waited outside the administrator's cabin. After a while he called and offered, “We will give you a forty thousand rebate if you don’t take the Insurance coverage. We are doing this for you since operations will be stalled if we don’t vacate the beds.”
I took out the remaining cash in front of him and counted. I told him, “Sir, I have twenty five thousand only.”
He said, without looking at me, “Pay it at the cash counter and take the discharge.” Finally our bills came to two lacs and thirty five thousand, against the original amount of three lacs.
I never was good at bargaining. But my natural demeanor like a straight wood got me better deals in this society. I observed many poor folks around the billing counter trying to understand the bills, pleading with doctors or insurance help line but never getting any rebate.
We left the hospital at five p.m.; around that time Tilak left for Chandni Chowk since there was no success for the field teams.
I had arranged a room in a budget hotel in Karol Bagh near the hospital. I told my mother, “We will move after a day or two. That way he will recover more before travel. I will make the arrangements.”
Once settled there, I kept in touch with the gunman who kept a watch on Tulsi. Around seven pm, he informed Tilak that Tulsi had left in an auto rickshaw, along with three others. Tilak positioned himself at the entrance of the narrow lane. As instructed before, no one would call Tilak unless there was an urgent reason.
Next one and a half hour brought no news. At 8:30 p.m., Tilak called, “Bhaiya, I am going to sleep at the railway station, just in case someone has picked up my trail.”
Then he narrated the progress. Tulsi's auto dropped her approximately two hundred meters inside the lane entrance. The lane was called Lahori lane. Then she turned inside a by lane to the right, five to seven foot wide. She had gone for about hundred meters and then disappeared. She had gone inside one of the doors. Each door itself was an entrance to a three feet wide lane, with rooms on either side. The buildings had four or five storey and narrow staircases somewhere.
I had seen old city lanes of Kanpur, so I could imagine the scene. Old Delhi was much worse and competed with Varanasi in its labyrinths.
Then we discussed the possibilities. He said, “Bhaiya, this place is alive from eight in the evening till four in the night. During daytime, a lot of small shops open and the traffic is very high but Tulsi won’t be around. Only good time to ask her to come out is between seven and eight in the morning. The streets are guarded at all times by folks; I think they are mostly Nigerians. There are some Pathans and Nepalese also. The Nigerians would have country made pistols, good only in close range. I think the lane would be least guarded during morning hours. It would have four to five men then.”
We had a long conversation. In between I also spoke to the gunmen, Bajrang and the driver. We concluded that at the appointed time, Tulsi would have to come with Muniya to the door in her by lane.
Then helped by us, she would make a run for the entrance to the Lahori lane. There, the Innova shall be waiting. More operational details were planned, in consultation with Mr.Thakur.
Strangely enough and to our utter disappointment, the two police gunmen refused to go inside the lanes. The best they would agree to was to wait at the Lahori lane entrance. They agreed to be in uniform.
One challenge still remained - brining Tulsi on board with our plans. This task was mine, planned for the next day. I was not worried about her consent. She seemed to have full understanding of what we were dealing with and the future if she failed to come out.
Next morning, in peak traffic hours, I stood at a small tea stall at the Jhandewalan crossing. It was located just before the crossing.
Tilak made a quick pass at Tulsi, and blabbered, “Bhaiya is at tea shop. Look around and come at ease.” Then he came near me., and ordered tea. Tilak, Piya, one gunman, Bajrang and two others stood around me, as strangers. The purpose was to crowd out others at the shop and prevent them from overhearing.
We hoped that she had heard it, and would not act in haste. She continued to beg, moving from signal to signal, till she came near us. Then, she came to us and begged, “Babuji, the child is very hungry, please give something.”
The shopkeeper instantly shouted, “Get lost.” I calmed him down. I told him, “Give one tea and a bread loaf, I will pay.” He sulked, “Babuji, they are thieves. You will feed them and they will pick your pocket.”
I said, “What they do is their choice or compulsion; let me do what I can.”
He looked for support but the other customers around didn’t mind. Sulking he gave a tea and a bread. That gave me enough moments to chat.
I said, “Speak in low voice without any worry, everyone around me here is our team. Can you come with Muniya till your blue door in the by lane? We would prefer early morning time. There will be enough men to take you out from there.”
She thought for some time, and said, “We come down together when she is leaving in the morning. She leaves a few minutes before me.” It was around eight a.m.
I said, “Then tomorrow morning, when you walk with Muniya to her auto, watch out for Tilak or Bajrang. As soon as you see one of them near you, run to the lane entrance. Then sit in the Innova car they will lead you to. Piya will be in the car.” I pointed to Piya, and Tulsi noticed.
I continued, “Leave Muniya to Tilak and others. There will be many men protecting you in those lanes.”
She said, “Bhaiya, they are merciless goons.”
I said, “You stop worrying about it. Just ask Muniya to run as soon as you see us.” Then I asked, “How many men are guards there in the morning?”
She answered, “Two or three around us.”
The conversation lasted for less than two minutes. She finished tea. By then the baby had finished the bread. Then she begged from everyone there for money, and went to her work at the lights. All of us dispersed in different directions.
That evening, the operation was planned in detail. Tilak included buying some liquor and powder for smell, to justify his early morning wandering in Lahori Lane. Ten men, a few armed with the iron rods, were to enter the lane upon call. The map of lanes and exits was explained. They were instructed how to disperse and take trains from railway station.
Then, I gave a motivational talk. I asked to them act like tigers when cornered, and have no mercy.
I explained to Bajrang about the need to leave marks of cruelty. I told him, “At least one or two men coming in our way should become a showcase. Their masters should have to think many times before sending men to chase us. Even if they do, the men ordered will be dishonest to them once they know our intent.”
I didn’t have to justify the act to anyone there. They understood the criminality and depravity of mafia.
Finally, I checked with the driver, “Once we have left, they will trace your vehicle and come after you. You can opt out now.”
He said, “Once they know whose vehicle it is, they will stop. They won’t harm me as I am just doing duty for someone. If they do, the local police will forget all their friendships and roast them alive.”
I didn’t ask further. Probably the vehicle belonged to someone like Dau of Delhi, or some politician who did favors to police. Those equations could not be disturbed by any mafia; else they would be wiped out. It was a complex world. Such men or local police would not approve of what we were going to do, yet they would disown the mafia once such an act was committed. Mr.Thakur understood how to play these complexities.
Then I went and booked three births for parents and myself on 11 am train to Bhopal, leaving some cash with Piya for tomorrow's travel.
As planned, everyone was ready by six am. I planned to leave hotel with my parents at nine.
By seven, Piya was in the Innova, stationed near the Lahori lane entrance. Others were also there. Tilak had been at the other end of Lahori lane. He was going to enter the lane at half past seven. It would take him five minutes to reach Tulsi's by lane entrance. He would oscillate around it.
The events of the day hereafter were narrated to me many times over and by many men.
A few minutes before eight, the gunman received the call from Tilak. He had spotted Tulsi coming out of the door in the by lane. Four men entered Lahori lane in a staggered formation, and briskly walked towards Tilak, still about two hundred meters away.
Another four stood at a fifty meters distance from each other, along the walls of Lahori lane. Two men crossed Tilak and stood about twenty meters further from Tilak. The formation was ready by the time Tulsi walked in the by lane to reach the auto waiting for Muniya and others. The auto rickshaw stood at the junction of Lahori land and the by lane.
The iron rods that were hidden in clothes came out; so did the gunmen's pistols.
Tilak reached out to Tulsi and lifted Muniya in his arms. He shouted, “Run.” The six tribal men formed a protective ring. The auto driver realized what was happening and rang an alarm with his horn. One local man shouted, “She is running away. Kill all of them.” He was promptly struck with a rod and fell unconscious. That was enough for other local goons to avoid the conflict. But two Nigerians and a Pathan were near the entrance. One of them took a pistol out. He was struck from behind by two men. His pistol flew away as he became a punching bag for the two of them.
The tribal hands that broke the stones, must have been like several tons of weight crushing him. The other Nigerian had a smicter but also suffered the same fate. They were left as a gory sight with one of them given head and spinal hits.
The Pathan wisely and surprisingly opted out of conflict. Perhaps he didn’t belong to this trade but issue of bread had forced him here.
Whatever ire I had, I had underestimated the anger of tribal villagers against those illegally withholding their women. For me it was a personal matter, but for them it was a matter of pride of countless women and girls who went to cities for work.
A night before, Tulsi had to make another choice - whether or not to leave behind the one year old stolen boy she used to carry while begging. The decision and its moral burdens were hers to bear. Keeping her faith, she brought him along. She knew he would have died otherwise.
One more child, a five year old had run along with Tilak. He was also in the car now.
All four of them, along with Piya, one gunman and Tilak, now rushed to the airport. They had to book tickets for the first available flight into anyone of the cities - Bhopal or Indore or Jabalpur or Nagpur. Fortunately, they got one for Nagpur. Piya booked their tickets.
Mr.Thakur was one step ahead this time. Knowing that Tulsi won’t be allowed an entry at the airport without an identity proof, he had sent a letter with the gunmen. In addition, he also sent a fake voter id, with a tribal woman's black and white photo. It looked similar to hers and could pass along with his letter.
Piya called me once they were settled in the flight to Nagpur. It was an hour's flight, to be followed by six hours on road to reach Sohagpur. I was at the railway station, arranging a wheelchair for my father. I had instructed Bajrang to board the same train with others. They were traveling in the general bogie.
Our train reached Bhopal by night. By then, Tulsi was already at the Sohagpur police station, recording her statements. In her affidavit, she had escaped from Chandni Chowk on her own. She gave useful information about the traffickers, the money lender who gave her debt in Nagpur, and many such details. It was enough thread for any agency to destroy the mafia.
But it was left there, the documents remaining in the rustic wooden cupboards of that remote rural police station. The little baby and the five year boy named Rehan were also declared lost. By law, they had to be handed over to some agency but were allowed to remain with Tulsi under a personal bond.
Then Piya took them to the local medical centre. The lone government doctor lived next door. He gave the baby some vaccinations and did a general checkup of others. He advised them to travel to Pipariya for blood tests.
It was almost 4 am by the time they reached the village. I had also driven from Bhopal at night, along with Bajrang and as many village women as the safari could accommodate, about eight of them. We had reached much before Tulsi's arrival and waited eagerly in the trust office.
I could hear Revaram's cart from a distance, its sound of its wooden joints had its music. All the villagers were up in that cold night, many had come from nearby villages as they had some news. The two bullock carts halted at the gate of Nagbaba's compound. As Tulsi touched the feet of Nagbaba, and then was embraced by her old friends and relatives, it was an emotional sight. Many tears came rolling down.
I asked Piya about Muniya. The children were sleeping in the cart, fully clothed and on soft beds, after months, unaware of the turn in their destiny. They looked awfully skinny. It was not so when I last saw Muniya nine months back; she was quite healthy then.
I put my hand on her forehead and thanked her and God for allowing me a chance to undo a terrible error. At that moment, Nagbaba stood behind. Perhaps, only he understood that my day and night tapasya and burning inside for this cause. He said, “Even God had to come to rescue his reputation. You have proven what Amma said was true.” With that he hugged me.
Piya told me that Muniya and the baby had tested positive for tuberculosis and had severe ear infections. They needed strict care but were not in immediate danger. The doctor at Pipariya had started the treatment. He sent the medicines and injections next days, with Mr.Thakur's help.
Behind the two bullock carts, many men were walking. Expectedly the one gunman and Tilak were amongst the group, but most unexpected and as a pleasant surprise, Mr.Thakur had come along with other local officials.
After a warm handshake with them, I took them to our trust hut office. A village home prepared tea for all. Most of the crowd was still around Nagbaba's compound. No one wanted to sleep.
Mr.Thakur and other officials listened to our work in the village. I described how this place could become one of the most prosperous places on earth and they listened intently. I did not discuss the truck operations and the water bodies. I couldn’t trust them yet.
In that hour they all seemed overcome by the power of our good act. They empathized with what had happened, and issues faced by our small set up. Years of settled layers of corrupt darkness in their hearts gave way to a ray of goodness, even if it was for a while.
Soon, a procession carrying Tilak and Amma voluntarily started from Nagbaba's hut. They were honored with hastily prepared garlands of leaves, and carried on shoulders. Someone brought dholak and manjiras, and they sang folk songs. The procession took a small round of the village road up to the river and came back and ended in our premises. The happiness all around could not be explained. I could not realize what triggered it.
Tilak came and hugged me. He was completely overcome by emotions and tears, and announced to everyone, “I could not save my children from gas. But,” then he took a long pause for controlling himself and said, “This time I had decided that whatever happens, I will not fail.” And so he got everyone's affection again.
After tea and some more chat, the officials got up to leave. Mr.Thakur gave a special hug. I just requested them, “Sir, please let this small event be spared from reporters and politicians. You know what viewpoints they can generate.”
They all promised and did accordingly. Then I went to sleep, leaving others to discuss the vivid accounts of what had happened.
When I woke up, some normalcy had returned to the village. The winter sun had been warming my bed. Most visitors from neighboring villages had gone back. Tulsi and Muniya, the baby and Rehan were still in Nagbaba's hut. I walked across the path to see them. We didn’t talk much. Tulsi was ashamed about begging but everyone understood her compulsions. I appreciated her strength of character to bring the small baby along. The baby was given a tribal name, Biru.
I wished to God that to find their parents. I told Mishra ji to take their photos and send to various NGOs and offices. We couldn’t leave that task to local police station.
Twelve months and the events in between had erased a lot of playfulness from Muniya's behavior. She also had very reduced hearing, which I hoped shall be cured. She didn’t try to become familiar with me but I didn’t feel bad. I was very thankful for her just being there.
Rehan was younger than Muniya but had been begging and fighting ever since he took first steps. He had been in the same group as Muniya; so he had followed her as Tilak lifted her.
Rehan was badly scarred. He would fight for food, and was always ready to aggressively retaliate. He repeated the phrase, “Mar dalunga” (I will kill you) when enraged. What had these criminals done to a five year old that had filled him with so much venom?
Begging on the streets of Delhi, he must have seen the indifference and hatred of those in cars with beacons, and those without. That would have shaped his mind.
His attitude and actions soon made him a target for other children. Even the adults never understood it. Living in this place, they could not have even imagined what the boy went through.
I again went to Tulsi. She had no affection for this boy. But I asked her, “Tulsi, what if Muniya was separated and lost and then found after five years. That has happened to Rehan. He has never seen a mother or a father, just criminals. No one here will understand other than you. If you give up on him, there is no hope. But unconditional love will bring him back.”
Tulsi thought till the morning and then took up the task. We made three comfortable rooms for three children in her hut. They would slowly begin to belong here.
The respect and love for folks like me, Piya and other outsiders associated with me had increased manifold. But it was nothing compared to the heroic status of Tilak. I smiled to myself while thinking about it. It was like a tail end batsman scoring a century in a must win cricket match final. There was no greater hero. Tilak was an underdog hero.
As days went by, the narrative of the last day in Delhi kept on evolving. The version that reached Raju Mama said that Tilak and ten tribals had overcome about a hundred brutal goons and that too inside their fort. There were scenes describing the brutal revenge of Tilak and team. Such was the conviction of story tellers that even sane minds like Dau would have had trouble building a true picture. On the other hand, the hints of police helping us, and Mr.Thakur's visit to the village must have been troubling news for both Dau and Vedi alike.
Then came the skyrocketing chart of Amma. From a benevolent harbinger of good fortune, she became one who could bless and make prophecies. Her simple act of reciting a chopai the night I had left for my father’s treatment was a proof of her prophesies about imminent events.
Sensing trouble for her, I told her in the morning itself to limit her public hours. I had a light chat over tea with my team and Nagbaba, and predicted that Amma would start getting visitors from long distances.
We had brought her court to be the justification for our cash income in the Trust, and let authorities deal with an old frail God woman, but she had the potential to wag the dog with a tail.
After a long discussion, we decided to take donations and gifts that would flow to her, and allow that to increase with some image marketing. This income for the trust was considered a better source than that earned by helping in illegal deforestation and mining. We still needed such sources for some more time.
After the morning meeting, I returned back to Bhopal. My father would need continuous care at least for three months.