Our village had many important visitors in the next year, some prominent social workers, officials and politicians, apart from those looking for business opportunities. But three of them stood out as different ones.
For quite some time, we had been getting feelers from a local representative of a prominent regional newspaper. He initially visited us for a newspaper advertisement offer, which was declined. Then he started pestering for an interview with Amma.
He was quite a young guy, in his mid twenties, named Dubey. I knew that he was not paid any salary by the newspaper. He earned a small amount from advertisement sales, but his major income came from black mailing folks. Most rural folks were very conscious of their name appearing in a bad context in a print media. He would look for leads that could be a source of income by defaming any person.
He had been quite disappointed with our trust; it was a pretty bad account. Of late he had been desperate; appearing regularly in Amma's court, and pestering visitors and villagers with his queries. We gave him a time for an interview with Amma. I left Amma to face this guy. We expected some sadistic interview by Dubey.
Before the interview, we made him agree on our condition to print our answers verbatim, without abridging or interpretation. It was video graphed to keep him honest.
He asked, “Amma ji, were you a beggar before you came here?” Amma said, “Yes beta.”
Dubey asked, “But when did you turn from a beggar into a saint?” Amma said, “When lord Rama decided.”
He persisted, “I mean how can a beggar become a saint?” Amma said, “What is not possible for Ram? He only made you a reporter, and then sent you here.”
I added, “Please tell us what enabled you to become a leading reporter in this area?”
The boy was too young and didn’t get the question correctly. He answered, “No one in entire district can ask the questions that I do. That is why I am representing this newspaper.”
I asked, “And how are you able to ask them?” He replied, “Because I only want to know the truth.”
I again asked, “So are you able to know the truth the moment you see it? That is awesome at your age and knowledge level.”
He boasted, “Yes, it takes me only a moment to see if a person is lying.”
I pitied the boy. This guy had a mental emptiness that could not be filled so easily. I asked him to continue his questions.
He asked Amma, “Do you perform any black magic, or tantras?” She said, “No, I don’t know any.”
He asked, “Then how do you solve anyone’s problems?”
He had a few threads on his wrists and a pendant in this neck. I immediately asked him, “So you think black magic can be used to solve problems.” He nodded in agreement, and said, “I know a siddh baba who has given these. They have protected me since I was a boy.”
I told him, “Amma has God's goodwill. Her blessings work. You should also try instead of being skeptical and questioning. If God leaves your side, then these pendants also won’t work.”
The conviction in my voice made him hesitate in interviewing further. As a consolation, I offered to show him around the village.
It was a bad use of time as his search for truth continued unabated. His question set primarily consisted of: 'Who lives in that hut', 'what is the name of that pond', and similar ones. I did not try to figure out how his investigative journalism functioned; and left him to his troubles. The fellow didn’t pester us much after that day.
Another interesting character that visited us introduced himself as an agent, one Shyamlal. Our Chartered accountant was familiar with him.
He was a typical tout, which inhabited the government offices. Appearing ever helpful and humble, they were a novice's guide to the system. They didn’t hold any official positions, but had access to office.
I gave an appointment to him, and preferred to call him to the village. He said, “Sir ji, I have heard about this Trust and its work. I can be a very useful person for you.”
I asked, “How?”
He said, “If you need funding from a government scheme, or a subsidy, or need to settle a bank loan for less, a tax enquiry, or need a license for anything from vehicles to mines, I can be of help. I will facilitate the movement of files and various payoffs.” Then he gave a list of project subsidies that he had just got approved.
I appreciated his good work. Then I asked, “How much will you charge?”
He said, “Sir, I am a small middleman. The payoffs will be two to three percent of the benefit you get. It all goes above. Regarding my fee, you can pay me as your wish, once your work is done.”
I knew he was not lying. The administrative and political machinery had many such practices to regularly make money.
I said, “I don’t doubt your credentials since our Chartered Accountant is known to you. But for now, we don’t have any need.”
He said, “Sir, try me out then. Let me get you money under a current hot scheme.” After rejecting most of his proposals, we settled for one program for improvement of cow breeds through artificial insemination program. The trust would get funding for injecting a thousand cows. The fee payable would be a thousand rupees per cow.
I said, “How will we get good quality semen, stored and brought in a nitrogen cold chain from a distant place, and a veterinary doctor service in this amount?”
He said, “I will help you complete the paperwork of having completed the work, and show the utilization of funds. You will save almost eighty percent of it, while the rest will be used in approvals and other costs. Once your track record is good this year, then next year we will get more funding.”
I have had no firsthand experience of this system, but did not desire it also. I have had bigger experiences. But the explorer in me did not back down.
I asked him, “I won’t go with you in such plans. But I can pay you for something. You monitor and inform us how much others are getting in this area, with their details.” He said, “Of course, Sir. But why do you need it?”
I said, “We will give your fee for this work. At least we will know how this system works. And we will know your worth too.”
I checked with our accountant if he had any reservations about this man. He didn’t care much.
Shyamlal agreed happily. Within two weeks, he gave us a list of last year’s approvals and how much was made by the end recipients.
I didn’t learn much from it - only that there was a lot of entropy in the official system. Shyamlal was a useful contact; he could come handy at some other time.
The third set of visitors made me extremely sad. They were a guy named Sandeep, and his parents.
He was in mid forties, and looked haggard. He had become bald also by slow attrition. He had heard about us and came looking for me. He was a senior from my alma mater IIT Kanpur, and a mechanical engineer. Almost ten years back he had returned from US to start a seed generation company. He had taken debt funding from the state industries fund.
Seeds were heavily controlled and adulterated business. One had to agree to adulteration to meet the payoffs for the officials and politicians. He resisted it, and launched his own brand. Soon, his brand's bags were raided and charges imposed of adulteration. It was a serious charge that ruined his business. To add to his woes, the various state departments also imposed financial penalties.
It took him eight years to clear his name in the false cases. He had lost precious years of life and the zeal to do anything creative. Now he earned his living by doing home tuitions; a complete waste of a precious national resource - an enterprising mechanical technologist.
I was so saddened to know his account that it moved me to tears. Somewhere, I could see myself in him, and his parents looked like mine. So many good persons had helped me out, Nagbaba being at the forefront. But he had gone through it without any such luck.
I asked him to stay back for the evening. I felt a deep sympathy for him and his family.
Over dinner in our home, he narrated his experiences. He said, “Bhaiya, Dau and his contacts ruined my life. That is why I feel gratitude for you.”
His using the term ‘Bhaiya’ was a bit uncomfortable. He was seven years senior to me. But had been beaten down so much by his trails that he had become very submissive, an almost impossible trait for anyone who has been an entrepreneur.
His father said, “Sir, my son had a sadhe saati* in his life. Dau used to trouble us even till last year. Then you came as a savior to us.”
(*sadhe saati was a dreaded seven and a half years of bad luck brought about by Saturn god, called as ‘Shani Maharaj’. It was a common belief in our society that anyone who was passing through this period was damned to see a lot of troubles in this phase.)
I said, “Uncle, don’t call me Sir. I am a junior to your son. This system doesn’t help anyone in distress, rather exploits. How can we blame Shani Maharaj for others' acts? He may have had a bad time, but what were the police, judiciary and others were doing? They were the real Shani Maharaj, in your case.
We took good care of them. I narrated to them the events of that night when I had walked down to the village, completely broken, and many other such events. Our conversation lasted till late night.
Once they left, Piya remarked, “Now I will never be angry with you, for anything.”
I said, “But why? Please don’t do that.”
She didn’t say anything. But I knew she was affected by their story, and how close I had been to ruin.
In October, immediately after the Navratras, Amma's send off was finalized. Her bank deposits topped thirty lacs and she could live off the bank's monthly payouts. Her percentage share in the trust's income also remained intact and her wealth would grow with time. Someone may think that we made her a fortune, but I thought that God sent her on my path, as a help when we needed every penny of it.
But before that, I had to keep the promise given to my mother. One day, I took Amma to my home in Bhopal. My mother was completely overwhelmed. She had many questions about her future. I gave her a large photo of Amma, which was promptly placed in the drawing room, next to the television, staring at all who sat there.
I complained, “Now how will anyone watch the television?” But she didn’t budge. My mother was like that. On such matters, she was quite rigid.
During the Navratras, Amma's sons and their families came to the village to take her. They also witnessed her aura. Almost the whole set of villages came to see her off at the Sohagpur railway station. I hugged her, and promised to visit her often. Then I touched her feet.
I advised her, “Amma, rest in your home. Don’t talk too much; else folks will start pestering for blessings.” She removed her thick glasses and wiped her tears.
We came back to the village along with the caravan. That evening, everything was so silent in the village. Ours was still a small settlement with just twenty one homes; and her absence was felt in every home.
All this while, Sardar’s men had also been working to adapt to the newer situation. Leaving mining and logging as lost causes, they had moved to occupy the spaces left vacant by Dau’s weakness. They now controlled Fertilizer distribution, Cement and sand distribution and had been trying entry in Seed distribution. They had a say in the Road projects connecting each village. Most of these business licenses were based on auction, but they ran with collusion at the highest level.
To a common man, it appeared to be separate parties getting small contracts. But clearly there was a network behind it. The only cement brand available in a large area came from a certain plant in Rewa. The plant was owned by a networked group, and the plant got limestone from a mine owned by a networked politician.
I did not bother too much about it; only two things troubled me – one was that they financed a majority of press advertisements and were in a position to influence the public as they wanted.
Secondly, they owned beer and gutkha distribution businesses and really hated the Mahua and such natural wines. If they could get tribals to leave Mahua and adopt their ways, financial control would automatically follow.
The reason it troubled me was that most of those between fifteen and fifty in our villages had received very little formal education. They had limited ability to see through such designs. Despite seats being reserved for tribals for last seventy years, not a single doctor or engineer or a lawyer or an official had ever been created here.
Our group’s knowledge vacuum was a huge weakness that had to be countered, if we wanted the Sardars or Daus or the system to never exploit us again. There was going to be no respite from these elements unless we were much superior in knowledge.
The tribal elders agreed with me that the process of learning was broken centuries back, and the present young generation had already gone beyond the point where they could be retrained for higher skills. But their value system was still intact; we had to use this strength to hold on to the recent revival. Then, we would buy time to develop the next generation.
This world was a continuous battle field - winning in physical ways meant that an intellectual destruction was on its way or vice versa. Success or failure was so momentary – it could only lead to a newer goal.
We needed ten to fifteen years of planning and sustained effort to produce first results. We set up a children's development center. It was to identify the talents of children below twelve, and then the Trust was to offer them a path, and finance it.
For immediate start, we selected ten children. Lakshmi was one of them. They were to be sent to a good boarding school nearby. It was around two hours from the village, and children could come home on weekends.
For the remaining ones, we hired good tutors. The tutors were hired full time and given a place to stay in the village. They would complement the government school studies but were much better in explaining concepts. I gave them a goal of making children compete in public tests where children from best academic schools competed.