Feeling in control of one’s own destiny is such a false euphoria. But it keeps the mind in healthy state.
Looking back, then I had very little preparedness for the ways of this world. I had always worked hard, and believed that it pays. And wrongdoers one day have to pay. My whole value system, upon which I had based my life, was going to be shredded.
I wondered what would have happened to people like my father or Sooraj, who would have seen so many folks progress on ill earned money and graft, and chosen to remain true to their values. They had accepted themselves as lesser beings- not capable of demanding more from life. My father didn’t care if no insurance company offered him a policy and the lawmakers looked the other way. Sooraj didn’t care if the water supplied in his locality was one fourth of that supplied in government officers’ colony. They had accepted their secondary status.
I realized later, the tribals I had met hadn’t yet accepted themselves as lesser beings in this system. And probably, after decades of being pushed into distress, they wanted some ray of hope.
Also I understood how selfish I had been till now. This made me decide that I won’t let this second life be wasted. I decided that any life, even in the hospital, was better than none. And whenever my resolve weakened, I just had to recall that it was a second chance.
I was also preparing myself to accept folks like Tilak and Shafiq around me. I didn’t have to - Over next few days, the two of them would stay with me; then they would stay on for years; never intending to go anywhere even after I freed them from their duty. Their deep internal turbulence found a place to rest, and they never ran from anything abruptly thereafter, till a day came when nothing could stop them.
It was 9pm when the two of them had arrived. Sooraj was sitting next to my bed; hanging around to his only hope.
Tilak was roughly in his late forties, average built person with an unkempt stubble and round face. He had saffron Tilak on his forehead, as his name suggested. He looked a hardcore Hindu. And Shafiq was a young lad, roughly in mid twenties. He was shaven, thin and fairer and taller of the two. He had a skullcap on. It was a strange combination. I had expected similar ages and less religious affiliation from the two.
Both of them did a slight bow of head to indicate courtesy to me. They were not aware why Sooraj had invited them here, but their experience told them it was not a usual request.
Tilak said to Sooraj in his loud voice, “Sooraj bhai, any new work?” Tilak seemed to be a talkative person, and very loud. Shafiq was very quiet, and cold.
Sooraj started narrating the events to him. Till now, Tilak knew only that Sooraj needed help in the bail case. But before that, I asked Sooraj to get some tea for them – a gesture that removed their natural antipathy towards folks like me – educated, sophisticated but having no care, as they thought.
When Sooraj finished narration, Tilak said to me, “Bhaiya, you should pay some ransom to get the case shut, call off the project and leave this place and country. Why are you spoiling your life; you don’t know these folks.”
I asked him, “What would you do if you were in my position?”
Tilak said, “We two have nothing to care for in life. We will simply gun down everyone till they get to me. But your case is different, you have a future, and you can do something else.”
Tilak was right in his approach. But he was also wrong technically- I could run freely only if the law cleared me. Any other running, even with police payoffs, would mean the other party dictating the case closely and soon I would have been falsely framed. Also, it would have brought more trouble for my parents.
I told Tilak, “I will evaluate all options when I am in a position to. But if I know myself, I am not running away from any threat. There is still a lot of good that should be preserved.”
Hearing that, immediately Tilak asked, “What should we do?” I was surprised to hear that – he had unilaterally decided that he was taking my order.
Ignoring Sooraj’s advice on how to deal with them, I told him, “I need some people around me who can bring a sense of safety. I can probably pay you for a while, but I don’t know if I can over a long period. I don’t want you to let go of your other income if I can’t provide for it.”
Tilak said, “We don’t work anywhere. I worked for a few years but stopped 23 years back. But we earn enough to take care of ourselves. You don’t worry about us. If we need something, we will tell you.”
I was getting confused with this concept of no salary but asking for an amount when they need. But Sooraj smiled and said to Tilak, “Bhaiya won’t understand your talk.”
Immediately Tilak said, “Yes. I didn’t realize that. Sorry Bhaiya. Pardon my words.”
It was beyond my comprehension why Sooraj’s remark immediately had got an apology! It was all going on in a serious manner.
I gave up and said, “Sooraj and you guys know better how to deal with each other. I have made my mind clear.”
Tilak said, “Yes.”
Then Sooraj asked about their plan tonight. Tilak had planned to drink at one of the liquor shops while Shafiq just sat there. But they changed the plan to go far, and decided to stay in front of my room. Tilak went out for a brief while for consuming his today’s quota, while Shafiq stayed at the hospital entrance.
Once they left, I asked Sooraj, “These two are characters. What will they be good for?”
Sooraj said, “Bhaiya, they are like that but don’t go by their antics. They collect weekly toll from all licensed and unlicensed liquor shops in our area, and pass it onto police officers, Municipal officers and the ward elective. They are also on rolls on builders to get land vacated for construction. There are hundred odd such people in Bhopal. But they never take from a poor person or trouble anyone.”
That was curious to me. By any calculations, they were collecting more than a few million a month and then passing it on. Even a small percentage should have made them rich. But they were poor.
Later I realized that they had no sense of accounting or a sense of money. If they ever needed anything, they would simply show up in the office of the ward elective and ask for the amount they needed. And he won’t care how much they asked for. That was the trick – their demands were always very small compared to their accrued percentages. If their immediate demand was not met, they immediately changed loyalties. No master took such a risk as there were always a few takers for such people, and finding and installing a replacement for them was not an easy task.
I also realized that if they had more accounting sense, they wouldn’t have been hired in this collection business. Such people were threats to the bosses. With one month’s collection, they could find muscle to stand for a corporator’s election; something that the ambitious candidates won’t let happen.
Still, there were many more mysteries regarding this pair. Many things were out of place. They were individually very religious; both seemed free from any other bonds of family or society, or some ambition. Yet, there was some light in them that immediately made them decide to be with me.
I tried to guess what creates such people. One answer was orphans or broken homes in childhood. But Sooraj gave a little brief.
In 1984, when the gas tragedy happened in Bhopal, they were staying in the same colony, like today. Tilak’s entire family died that night, including his parents, wife and two children. In case of Shafiq, only he remained. He went to live with relatives but soon someone left him back near his old house. Since then he had stayed with Tilak.
I was satisfied partially but not fully. I said to Sooraj, “Such misfortune happened. Yet I feel there is more to it, as they just drift. They are what I call ghost ships. It is a horrible feeling when your anchors are cut and the sea takes you away from the shore.”
Just then, my father came in with home cooked dinner. My mother had arrived with him. Normally, they were always around except in intervals but today they had relaxed after Sooraj had come.
My father had a tense and serious look. Unlike earlier days, now it was very easy to make out his moods. I asked him what the matter was. He smiled and said nothing. But my mother betrayed. She said there had been a couple of unidentified calls asking him to stop my witness report or there would be bad consequences. We didn’t have a caller id phone then.
It told me a few things, all inferences – someone from Mr.Thakur's office, who was coming to take my statement, had passed on the information. Second – Mr.Thakur was probably a clean person. Third- it was the correct thing to do. And Fourth – the enemy was not so strong after all; they did fear something lawful and wanted to prevent it using threats.
All my inferences were bang on target. Still, I could not place a finger on who would be scared of my report to Thakur and why? But it turned out to be a good ignorance.
But my worry regarding my parents’ safety increased. Our house was not built keeping such threats in mind. Anyone could walk in, break a wooden door and have two old people as soft targets. Over next two years, they would live in a shadow of fear, completely locked in at all times. There were a couple of incidents to scare them and I woke up after that. But still they lived in fear unaware of the invisible cordon around.
My father immediately called up many of his relatives. And told them they should spend some time here as he needs more people at home. And all of them obliged on phone, promising they would come during the Diwali holidays for a week! Then they could take off and even their children could.
I smiled knowingly and looked at my mother. I thought it was a victory for her after years of trying to make my father understand the reality of his folks. But despite her desperate prayers to God to turn him against his relatives, He had always been neutral. Ironically, today she would have been happier if she lost – she wanted his relatives to come over, and must have prayed for that. But again her God had decided not to interfere. Curiously for me, her God was always neutral ever since I had known, but that didn’t affect her faith.
Nonetheless it was a rude shock to my father. He had been proud of his vast family of relatives. But now, there was not one person who would hear his distress call and leave everything and come running. I realized the value of near friends –friends whom we don’t give as much value as the distant stars.
A few of his daily conversation contacts were a couple of construction laborers, the house-maid, the newspaper vendor and the likes of these, apart from his group of morning walkers. He soon shared everything with them, and they decided to be at his beck and call, even living in the house if required. Soon, every small vendor and maid in our locality knew that special precaution needs to be taken. And they would not let the two oldies feel alone.
Next morning, I was woken up early by the hospital staff, in order to see the main doctor. The doctor had kept his checkup hours before the normal day begun.
Apart from the five people that I had expected to find in the room, I found another one sleeping on the floor. He was the first cousin of my mother– Raju Mama. Raju Mama lived on his farm in a village lying between Pipariya and Sohagpur. He was a farmer.
Raju Mama had arrived late last night to see me, after coming to know of the events. He was much younger to my mother- still in his early fifties, looked much younger and was a very short, stocky built, with thick moustaches.
Being a small farmer, he depended heavily on government grants. That meant, he kept contacts with lower level politicians and clerks in government offices. While I was deciding upon the project storage location, Raju Mama had roamed around with me. He was always keen about any new thing. He also had taken me to his many acquaintances in and around his village, demonstrating to everyone that he knew very educated and connected folks.
When we had started work in our project, he had been keen to be a part of our project but we had not been interested. Still, being a well wisher, he had always asked me to carefully choose who all will work with us. He also told me that despite being a small farmer, there were times he had to show violence to keep his crops and money safe.
It had not appealed to me, in these times of development. Yet he was in my good books as he was always ready to do whatever I asked for. The village folks took the relationship between a nephew and a Mama, even if a distant one, as very sacred and the nephew was the boss. I had not understood this affection, that too from a distant relative, and had pleasantly acknowledged it.
I was happy to see him as he was a big optimist. He always had a sense of urgency about him, always going on a mission, from next election’s planning to a big plan like opening a school in the village to a dairy. His plans had never seen the light of the day in past three decades but they were always there as if they start tomorrow. But he was very poor, and for all his show of generosity and big plans, his two pairs of white clothes and same set of rubber shoes and ticketless travel betrayed his poverty.
When they wheeled me out to the doctor’s cabin, my father accompanied me. A quick round of fresh X-rays and other tests were done. The doctor asked me while looking at them, “How are you feeling now?”
I answered, “Much better, but I need to work again. How long will it take?”
He was more comforting than decisive. He said, “You should relish what you have. Your upper arm has been fixed and it will take up to six months to heal inside since the bone is completely gone for half a centimeter. It is just held by the rod. But this is fine. I hope it will grow without external intervention. You have to be careful that you don’t fall or lift any weight.”
That was very optimistic to me. Then I asked about the lower hand and wrist and fingers.
He started building the case, and said, “See, the hand movement is a complex function. If we leave it with a plaster and take it out after two weeks, I think you will be able to use your lower arm and the wrist with only half the freedom. If I operate and use traction to set bones in position, you may get up to ninety percent movement.”
It was a bad news. I had no energy left for a second and bigger. We had a detailed discussion on what he planned to do but by the end of it, I was very confused. One part of my mind went by intuition and felt that I should leave it and come back to surgery later only if the normal healing posed movement problems, the other part said it might be too late then and I will have to live with it.
The doctor said I can decide in a day or two, and ordered a cup of tea. He had finished his business part and wanted to be human again. He told me that he sees many accident patients every day, and many are worse. And he sees financial and other worries that his patients face but they try to hide. He had gone through that cycle himself. He asked me many questions about my views on life and the accident and tested my stress levels. What he told me in next ten minutes were truths, but this time I would deny it for very long -
‘ He told me that it was probable that I could get affected by the Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD); that there was no cure but I had to accept it as normal and it would start fading with time. I came out very amused that this doctor does not know my mental toughness. I was pretty normal even immediately after the accident and in all this stress around me. My father also dismissed the doctor’s views.
It took a few months when one day, I was totally calm after an internal storm, and I did realize that the doctor was right. Once in every three to four months, for a brief period of a day, and without any reason or trigger, I would stop relating to the world. On a few occasions, I would go into depression and tears. I would not realize what was happening to me, but I would get offended if anyone tried to come close to me. My mind looked away as if it was not hearing anything. That storm would last for a few hours, but in those few hours, I had the potential to destroy every close relationship with my words.
A few months after that realization, I sat with a doctor, analyzed the reasons and the traumatic accident and death that led to PTSD, and took steps to contain the mental storms. It was easy to understand when it hit and had a simple remedy to sleep over it for a few hours. Eventually it would stop.
By the time I realized it and took corrective action, three or four mental storms had happened. Most passed unnoticed or rather without causing any damage. But in one, I burnt a bridge that would never be completely repaired again.’
When I returned from the doctor’s cabin, it was late in the morning. Others were still asleep; probably they stayed awake till late night. So I went to the balcony to see the morning sun after a long time.
Morning sunlight can bring hope and joy to most distressed minds. There were no more worries of unknown murderers or goons of Mr.Agarwal or financial drain or my arm; the sun was asking me to just rise above all of it and the shadows will disappear.
I had all day to think and plan about next steps and tomorrow. The next day had to be planned for. For the first time in life, I was going to make a statement to the policeman. I also wanted to tell him that his person’s foolishness had cost a life and he almost compromised me.
I also reflected about Nagbaba. I now acknowledged that he knew far more. He had correctly warned us about each thing and with a good heart sent Tulsi with us. What I didn’t understand was why did he advice us to go at all. Probably his calculations went wrong when Tulsi got injured in the car accident. Else I knew he was enough in the dark of the forest for all others.
Another thing pending was appointing a good lawyer. I had three names to decide upon. One of them had approached us in the hospital. He was an old man, a known criminal lawyer, and he took up complex cases. He was slightly infamous as a ‘jugadu’ lawyer, and could fix the cases. He lived in the same locality as us and knew my father. He had come to the hospital and urged that this case be given to him. The other one was more ‘by the book’ lawyer, known for their scruples, which in lawyer community meant not shaking hands with opposing parties behind the scene.
Absorbed in these thoughts, I came back to the room. By now everyone was up and the tea and breakfast, poha and jalebi, were there. I was now allowed normal food and liquids were taken off. The lower right hand had a plaster and a strap to support it so that the weight did not come on the upper hand.
Raju Mama was also fully awake. He had traveled at night by state transport bus, which was a tiring thing. He shook my left hand and said in a remorseful tone, “Bhaiya, what has happened? You did not listen to me, and went by your educated friends’ words. But now you don’t worry; they will see what I can do.” As usual, we were amused by his bravado talks and asked him to calm down.
But Raju Mama continued, “Bhaiya, I am not sure who has done this to you but they have started scaring your employees in Pipariya, by showcasing your plight. You must handover the project to me and allow me to handle the affairs. Call them now and tell them Raju Mama ji is taking over the charge. Your current folks there will eat you up if they get scared.”
I had never doubted Raju Mama’s intentions and his devotion to me. But his request was too much and made no sense. I told him to calm down and told him that all those posted are professionals. And they were there with the consent of partner banks and agencies, and I was not going to change them overnight.
It was a decision I would repent. In such volatile situations, Raju Mama’s devotion to me was a huge force required. It could not be replaced by professionalism of a few brilliant technical minds.
Yet his effort was not in vain. I immediately checked with the Insurance Company if anything was left uncovered in our project. There were a few technical recommendations made by the Insurance Company that were yet to be met. Immediately, payments were sent out to the technical service providers and all the points were covered. In months to come, Raju Mama’s warning paid off heavily. I was improving in decision making – making odd blunders but following up with some good decisions.
Then we discussed the choice of the lawyer. I wanted my father to think over it. He sided with the old man –Verma ji. Raju Mama also advised me to go with him. While my father sided with the old man suggesting that he would be wiser, Raju Mama thought that Verma ji was cunning and can advice for long term. But I should keep my eyes open and change the lawyer if any doubt creeps about him. I went with their advice.
That was a long day for me. Seven hours since morning had left me exhausted; I dozed off without much care for tomorrow.