Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What if? The ‘Other’ side!

Nevertheless the bag full of money could impress anyone, and ‘Shantaram’ was not exception, he quickly took the bag off the back seat of his auto and rushed inside his room on the ground floor of old chawl. He said to himself that this day would be the golden day for his future after 35 years of being an auto driver in Mumbai suburb. Safe inside his lonely room, he swept aside the clutter and opened the bag carefully; his eyes kept dancing on the bundles of 500 rupees and hundred rupees currency notes…

He slowly touched one of the bundles, which should be about fifty thousand rupees; that took him back his memory lane as he remembered his first loan of three thousand taken from the moneylender to buy a old auto-rickshaw way back that he used to ply in the upcoming city suburb then called Jogeshwari. The dim bulb on the ceiling flickered…in the excitement he remembered leaving keys in the auto …he pushed the bag under his rusty cot and quietly returned back to his auto… the keys were intact. As he locked the auto, he glanced at the old machine, his hand kept moving on the sidebar of the windscreen that badly required painting, his eyes were full of tears in anticipation that the money bag has actually taken him away from his all-time three wheeler mate that served him over last ten years…and made him dream about upgrading himself to buy something more exciting or he could now be able to break the mortgage and buy her back just for the sake of nostalgia!!

The excitement killed the hunger cramps and he choose to sleep empty stomach, his motivation laid beneath his rusty cot while his eyes kept reading the ceiling cracks known for years and the abstract figures made by his mind using the cracks kept him awake and guessing till late night long with never ending wish list that he wrote on his mind… the night must have crawled through the past midnight hour.

It was indeed a busy day, he started at about 7 am and after about ten-fifteen rides back and forth from andheri station to amboli, navrang and samta nagar etc he was tired and stopped for a tea break well beyond noon near the Amboli church. As he sipped his last sip of the tea over the last closing conversation with the tea stall owner Kabir, his mate since a decade, when he spotted the old yet elegant aunty rushing towards his auto…
“Will you pls drop me at Leelavati, I need to be there before 5 pm.” she said to him. Shantaram looked at his watch, it was just past 2 pm, he estimated that if he takes the S V Road he should be there in about an hour or so…”OK” but I will have to take the Hill Road, as there is no right turn allowed for auto’s by the time we reach near Leelavati, our limit ends there…” he said to her while picking up the ‘kick’..

“God Bless you! Pls rush, I will pay you 10 Rupees more than your meter if we make it in time” Old aunty told him to motivate while kept her bag near to her holding tight..Shantaram looked at the rear mirror which gave him clear view of the old lady behind, her bag. She looked old yet elegant, perhaps in her late sixties, she was wearing a comfortable salwar khammez and her diamond earrings were glittering, she now was holding the bag on her lap so tightly as if someone could try and snatch it from her and she was not going to let that happen…
She was all quite but seems worried while taking the auto is now bit relaxed as the auto picked up the speed towards the destination. The no so busy afternoon roads let her worries fly about the traffic and without any major hiccups even at the busy signals they seem to have managed the right schedule. The ride continued to be smooth and nice; she loosened her grip on bag and even kept the bag in the rear side of the seat, between backrest and the hood. Her watch continued to give her confidence and she now started enjoying the FM that played some old numbers of kishoreda.

After about 45 minutes Shantaram parked his auto near the rear gate of Leelavati, aunty took out a crisp hundred rupee from her purse and told Shantaram” keep the change” and she just rushed inside the hospital in a great hurry…she had made it there well in advance. Shantaram too was happy as he made at least 12 rupees more that the meter. Perhaps the day was lucky for Shantaram as he picked up a returning customer who wanted to go to Lokhandwala from the hill road auto stand where Shantaram enjoyed the ‘Punjabi samosas’ and hot tea, he believed that was more than enough as a lunch substitute, to pamper himself he had enjoyed a banana too..
The customer for Lokhandwala must be leaving early from office as he kept speaking to someone back home over his cell phone with laundry list of things to do and purchased to be made, he made Shantaram take several stops on Linking road, Irla bazaar and even near juju lane to pickup whole lot of things that kept stuffing the auto. The auto started looking like a delivery van with different boxes; plastic bags etc, Shantaram smiled at him but the customer kept ignoring him, which was not a new behavior for Shantaram, he then choose to remain invisible yet attentive.. After about past eight they seems to have reached the destination near Lokhandwala, the customer paid off Shantaram and called building watchman from the complex to offload the goodies from the auto, this trip was quite long and Shantaram was satisfied after settling the bill standing near a paan-bidi stall for a beedi break while the watchman kept clearing the stuff from his auto…

“Hey, stop..!” the watchman came running back to auto just as Shantaram started & turned auto back from the gate, he was carrying one bag and kept it on the rear seat of the auto…”Yeh hamara nahin hai!!” (This does not belong to us!!). The bag looked familiar to Shantaram, exactly like that of the old auntie’s bag…”Oh, Nooo…!”Before Shantaram could realize what must have happened, watchman kept the bag on the rear seat and disappeared inside the complex.” What crazy lady she must be!!” Shantaram yelled to himself, now I have to go all the way back to return this bag to her …
“Will she be there still?”
“Which ward? Which patient she must be visiting?”
“Will she report the loss to police; will police listen to my story?
Many such questions popped in his mind but he decided that he must anyhow return the bag to her…he had a plan! If the lady does not turn up at the hospital gate he will try and search her near the amboli church, her starting point.

By the time he reached back to Leelavati Hospital it was almost 9.30pm, the security man he saw smiling at the lady then was out of his shift and there was a new face. He reached that person and said, ”Sirji, did anyone reported about losing anything here” stupid question he said to himself, the guard looked at him with crossed eyebrows and said” What did you find?” returning a cross-question.
“Nothing, just that I got a newspaper left by someone I dropped off this evening here and thought I should return the same”. Shantaram was cleaver enough to know that nothing was under fire neither in the hospital nor at the security gate Now that he had no choice but to return to his auto and return to the other option of visiting amboli church. While on the way he started talking to himself…
“What if this lady had not reported this to police? What if the cash is unaccounted and her family must have advised her not to report this to safeguard their own interest and let go the ‘by-gone’ cash?” he smiled to himself knowing the difference of his mental state that the magic of money started luring his conscious making up this alibi.. It was a long effort to make him up to stick to his original stand to return the bag. By the time he reached Amboli church it was too late, he waited there for long but no one seem to turn up …”Let us check out again in the morning” he decided. His curiosity now moved his attention to the bag. Must be very costly leather and imported, he could gestimate that the bag belonged to the lady was indeed unique. As he opened the zip his eyes widened and he knew he just missed a heart beat. He quickly closed the zip kept the bag safely in the back of his auto where exactly the old lady had kept it. Next few minutes witnessed a great adrenaline flow inside his body, he was over excited yet acted clam, the mature and seasoned mind made him drive back safe to his den, in the century old chawl no one was awake and while he parked his auto the reverberation of auto engine sound kept haunting the old chawl..
After about an hour in his room, the old window pane of his room kept making a creepy sound as the windy night covered the chawl, his body kept trying to sleep while his mind still remained dancing with the abstract figures on the ceiling cracks .. his mind soon gave up.

“Knock Knock!! Open the door!! Shantaram you there!!” a known voice and thud on the door made Shantaram got off the bed and rush to the door…”I am sorry but, but they made me hunt you down!!” an apologetic tone he remembered from his auto stand, it was Kabir, his old mate and tea vendor along with some men. The postures looked like they all were from the special branch. By the time Shantaram was back in his senses he was pushed inside a van and in minutes they caught hold of the bag. No one was speaking while on the way till they reached the Andheri police station, they entered through the rear entrance and directly took Shantaram on the backside office. Shantaram remembered to visit this office for police verification few years ago while applying for passport, he barely knew anyone there…The faces already present inside the office were known, like the hospital security guards, one from the afternoon and one he just met few hours back both standing there and yes he recognized the old lady who seem to murmur something to one young officer standing nearby…
“Slap!!” this was the first ever slap he had in years, it was strong and tight. “You bastxxxd, what did you do with the money?” Shantaram stood up folding his hands to towards the office and kept nodding his head implying a negative swing from left shoulder to right…he had not used any words. “Sir, money is intact!!” said a hawaldar who just finished counting the bundles and the office that was holding Shantaram with his shift collar from the back of his neck smiled looking at the lady. Officer pushed Shantaram hard towards the wall letting him go from his grip and turned to the lady asking for her confirmation. ”Exact seventeen lacs, Prabodh! Not a rupee less!” Her excitement was back as she looked at the officer. Shantaram knew by then that the lady must know the officer. He looked at her but could not make an eye contact. “Mamma, you are lucky to get it all back otherwise I know these basxxxxds!!” his anger seems directly proportional to all the efforts he must have put in to trace Shantaram. Tears ran through Shantaram as the dreams of ‘money bag’ had bubbled out and was replaced with this police episode, his entire day of effort, his rushing through the traffic, entire day seem to roll in front of his eyes, before he could pull himself back his body gave away and he collapsed.

“Shantaram! Shantaram are you ok?” a gentle female voice is what he felt he heard. Shantaram opened his eyes slowly and found himself on a king-size bed in a grand bedroom, the size he could have never imagined for a single room, must be at least thrice the size of his room in the chawl. The gentle voice is suitably backed by a clam face; oh the old lady is back!! The entire episode just rolled back in front of his mind…he felt heavy! That must be late morning he could see the sun from the tinted windows well above the horizon. He must have slept for hours he realized.
“Don’t worry! You are not with the police, they are gone so does everyone” she said smiling at him. “The hospital guards told us that you were back looking for me, that behavior was honest and convincing! You are innocent, and you must be rewarded!“ She kept talking for about an hour and told him the need of an open heart surgery, she rushing back from bank taking the cash back to the hospital, leaving it in his auto and realizing it later when her son, the commissioner of police deployed men and tracked him from his tea stall owner from Amboli, his mates, friends etc till they reached him at his room with Kabir…The money was sent back to hospital duly protected and her husband got operated successfully and was out of danger.

“Prabodh, he is awake!” said the lady and the young office was all smiling at him in few moments. “You should have taken the train back to your native? Or else should have tried even going away from the city? After-all the entire bag was full of ‘bloody’ money! That you knew?” the young office was direct and curious to find such honesty still alive in the fathom down level of the society…expecting and answer from Shantaram he handed over hot cup of tea and some naan-katai biscuits over to Shantaram. “Shukriya, (Thank you)” he said looking at the lady and the office while he restored his senses and quietly got off the bed. “That was not my money! I had no intention to keep it but had no choice to take back with me just to keep trying to return back the next day” His voice was firm and confident. “We know that! That’s why we owe you our gratitude!” the lady came forward and handed over an envelope to Shantaram.”This is a small token of our appreciation to your intention, please accept it. We know this will at least help you pay off all your debts and bring you some happiness.” The turn was that of the officer, he kept offering more help to Shantaram over anything, giving him his card, phone number and repeated assurances of favors…
A small tear left unattended over Shantaram left eye well down till his grey mustache, he kept walking outside the well guarded premise, he had by now switched off himself from the world as he kept walking on the busy street tightly holdings the envelope in his hands folded to his chest. His mind was not able to answer a simple question that came popping..
“What if the Lokhandwala watchman would have not returned the bag to him?”
“What if that he would have picked up some more passengers and any one of them would have flicked the bag?”
“What if he would have just left the city last night with the bag?”
“What if……”

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Wedding!

Sitaram was confused. Judge was looking at him; Sitaram could sense a surprise in his eyes. “Are you sure you don’t need a lawyer and wish to confess your crime!!” he asked him again. Sitaram did not speak again but he nodded his head in acceptance. “You will answer the court, speak!” the judge changed pitch of his sound; he seems to be busy completing many pending cases for the day. If he hears him say ‘yes’ this case is done and he can directly put Sitaram for a sentence. To his utter surprise, Accused choose to be silent and just kept on nodding his head in anticipation.

Sitaram’s forehead was full of droplets, the sweat now started flowing down his neck and he did not bother at all, he was all ears and eyes for the judgment as if it’s going to change his whole life! Not quite far, in last ten months in his new job he could manage to win creditability of his Seth, the owner of the saw mill compound as an assistant to the mill manager but with his vision and visibility of business and inventory the was able to turnaround some lean 7 mean business areas into breakeven stories.

His dedication and desire towards his duties were unquestionable; the honesty he exhibited made others rethink their positions and elevated Sitaram’s impression positively. “No this waste should not be burnt! this is saal wood and will fetch large amount of cash if it is shredded and washed for the paper business” the first turnaround of what the traditional business called scrap was minting money for Seth earning entire staff salary for the saw mill for the full year. He happily presented Sitaram with a bicycle to reach the mill from his village 20kms away.

The mill area was near the forest and there was a huge potential for the business if the forest officers allow them to manage just about every piece of wood the mill has gathered as dead wood from the tender floated by the forest department. Sitaram remembered each and every nook and corner of the forest as his forefathers did, being a ‘adivasis’ (tribal people) representative he even managed to convince local government for letting the dead wood collected by adivasis and sell them to the near by saw mills, this would bring back lot of earning opportunities for the clan as well reduce forest fires reducing the fuel availability by way of dead wood, on the other side the mills will enjoy quality wood at no cost of pre-acquisition and generates revenue without capital investment.

It was early summer and the folks of adivasis could bring in tones of dead wood near the mill gate every evening, Sitaram used his skills to identify the wood and categorized it by type making it easy for redoing into slabs or even the chipping..

Judge looked at Sitaram and thought of giving up on him, he simply looked at the state lawyer and said”I want you to reread the charges filed and clarify your stand before I could conclude, I wish to give a chance for the accused to hear the charges levied against him load and clear!”.

The court could sense the discomfort in his voice and the audience most of which were connected to other cases but this was eager to see the rapid progress. It was the third case since morning and court was about to be at lunchtime. “He must be hungry’ someone at the learning lawyer’s bench murmured into other black coat’s ear. “it is straight five years for the accused now!!”

Then there followed a formality of reading 20 pages of court language where Sitaram was able to hear few known words like forest act, fire prevention, act of self motivation, he could spell the English words in five minutes really putting hard time since school he studies ages ago, seems he knew what the verdict could mean but still wanted to confirm at once.

‘Knock knock!!’ by the time the reading was over judge kept looking at the clock, which complimented everyone with a lunch-break. Sitaram was feeling tired, the very sensation of food just disappeared and he engaged into the wedding ceremony nearing by next week, his only daughter was getting married with a great alliance and he had ensured all will be well. He looked at the audience where his only friend from his village was sitting and looking at him. His raises his hand a bit and moved five fingers to touch at fingertips, “five more minutes!” as if he conveyed to his buddy. His friend nodded in anticipation, the man in the red shirt sitting besides him with a black pouch studded between his shoulder and chest spoke something in the ears of Sitaram’s buddy and went out.

Thirty thousand was not a big figure compared to his daughter’s destiny, the only family member left at Sitaram’s house; he remembered his wife dying al the local government hospital in last famine in ‘malnutrition’ case. He even remembered his last words for her with the wedding he desired for his only daughter. Then came this good alliance with promising future for his daughter in the catchments area of neighboring taluk, with lot of water and few guntha land to plow.. the cost of wedding was agreed by and between two fathers..

Seth was waiting in his air-conditioned car outside the court, the man with the red shirt rushed towards the car, Seth lowered the rear window glass just about the hear him, the man spoke humble to him, Seth kept listening, he took his cell phone out and called someone. ”Sirji, bas ho gaya! Judge maan gaya” ( sir, it’s almost done, judge has accepted!) As Seth was smiling, the man in red shirt moved away from the car safely keeping the black pouch in tightly held condition between his arms…

It was late afternoon, and Sitaram was being taken to the central jail for starting his fresh sentence. Judge was kind and granted only three years as there was mutual consent from Sitaram and seemed very cooperative. The state insurance board building had a man with red shirt to receive compensation Cheque favoring the mill, “it’s here in my hands sir” he called Seth and confirmed the amount ”Pure pandhrah lakh hai sir!, kaam barabar ho gaya” ( it’s full fifteen lacs, work is done properly), Seth kept the phone down and sat in front of his mandir, where a beautiful marble statue of lord Krishna was kept, he kept bowing in front of his lord and kept saying “Saab aap ki duva se bhagwan!!” ( by all your grace my lord!)…

Sitaram’s friend took three hours to reach the neighboring village with the black pouch given to him by the man in red shirt as soon as sentence is heard in the court! He reached the person and handed over the same as soon as he saw him, “ Malik! Siraramji ne paise phijwaye hai!” (lord, Sitaram has sent in the cash), the man peeped in the pouch and took the money out, he counted all the currency and nodded with a smile! Turning his head inside his house, father of Sitaram’s would be son-in-law shouted “Mithai laoo, sandesh pahunch gaya! ( bring some sweets, the message has reached!”…

The fire department lost three of their jawwans ( firemen) while bringing down the fire in the nearby Saw mill, which ruined almost everything in the mill, it seems the large collection of pricey wood gathered from the nearly forest under the state govt tender which was ready to be shipped out, was got fire from the Beedi ( Indian cigarette) lit by the employee carelessly. The local media covered the story and displayed the photo of the captured employee who intern was responsible for this fire…just a day before the fire large shipments of wood had left for the nearby port from the same mill under the forest officers vigilance, records for which were also burnt by the fire accidentally.

Sitaram who never lit a matchbox in his whole life, sitting in his barak ( cell) day dreaming his daughter’s marriage. He was utterly convinced that he got a good deal from his Seth, who came as savior to offer him this job and made his daughters future, after all it’s not easy to earn thirty thousand in three years with hard work…He hear all India radio news reader saying something in English where his Seth’s name was put in for a the national award for forest perseverance and innovative idea of dead wood collection being rolled out all over the state…it’s just 35 months to go!!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Promise

It was a sunny day and she drove her old age mini pickup in hurry towards the station late afternoon. As she passed the old level crossing few miles before the station she heard the train leaving the station. She was driving for hours sacrificing her food breaks since morning.
This is a great day, she said to herself. She even remembered now that how she forgot to leash the dogs and even kept the farm door open in a haste to reach. She always preferred once a while to have her wild cattle’s run into her own farm rather than outside where teen poachers who always kept strangling them for the fresh meat and leather. The risk seemed unworthy today. The day she had been waiting for was finally here. She remembered her childhood, sitting on the farm fence and looking at the trains passing by with her old father and talking about the travelers and the journeys …
The dusty road ran through the sunflower farms spread around, the gusty wind twirled up the dust painting the trees and shrubs with golden tinge. Here it came, the station. She saw couple of cars and pickup trucks moving around the cargo and few passengers. Then came the old farmer with his buggy ( horse cart) crossing her way, he waived at her and with one hand he managed to point towards the station with a smile on his face for her while the other hand engaged in tightening the leather leash binding the wild horses in a subtle discipline of the road.
She felt as if everyone now knows about her pricey possession awaiting her at the station. She pulled her pickup almost near to the cargo entrance and rushed into the section where she could see a big parcel of her ‘sunflower seed crusher’ wrapped in a tidy cloth packaging with her name and farm address printed with the red ink. She ran towards it, her hands were all-over the package just like cuddling her beloved dream. It took her several hours to complete the paperwork, pay off transportation charges, finding few men who helped her load the machine behind her pickup.
“Are you ok? Will you be able to unload it yourself at the destination: said the chap who was eager to help her organizing it to load?”; “its fine? I have few laborers down there who will take care, There you go!” she handed over few coins in his hands and slammed the door to return. She did not like him staring into her cleavage while she was closing the rear loading bay doors. He seems to be candid and kept on smiling at her...his golden hair indeed had some magic. “Life is tough!” She said to herself. She knew that she may had to wait till next four days that anyone will come to her farm to unload the stuff once she is back after a long return journey. But she preferred lying to this guy as she suspected him to be the part of the local goons and decided to avoid him altogether.
As she drove away from the station on her return, she kept on gazing in the rear view mirror. The guy kept looking towards her direction. His golden hair kept shining away in the setting sun.
This is not the first time that she has been bold to the strangers, as a practice she has managed the art of showing her self confidence and being aggressive as part of her biggest defense. Twelve years in the remote farm after her father’s death in her late thirties. She exhibited her first remarkable achievement to be the only one to own the seed crushing machine and to start her very own oil factory in the territory. No one has ever even dreamt of such desire. Shouldering the responsibilities of her large farm solely was not only difficult at the adolescent age but demanded lot by sacrificing all the fun in her demanding age and working towards fulfilling the promise she made on the deathbed of her beloved father…she was almost day dreaming by then!
KRIIIIIIIIISH! The vehicle came to a grinding halt as she tried managing a deep turn and the rear wheel seems to have divorced the well run business. Luckily she managed to control it with great skill and effort, and just halted it just before the abandoned check post. Just about twenty-two miles away from her farm and at least an hour long good walk to the next juncture to the nearby garage. She was helpless. The wheel base was piping hot and vaporizing, she realized that the wheel base was jammed with the broken brake sole and gave up.

She went back to pickup the loose tyre where she spotted some thing broken besides the wheel nuts! She realized that it must be the crafty act of someone doing something to the wheels!! She failed to notice that it is the brake drum which broke. She continued her imagination, blame game!! The first face which came up on her mind was ‘Him’, the guy with golden hair…it must have been him, he must be on my chase, he looked stranger and must have done this…or he could have be sent by those poachers, local goons…god knows!!
Her mind was contemplating the distance, task in hand and the setting sun. The loneliness while was her pal for some years now had just turn away inculcating fear of being young and alone into her fast imaginative mind. The spare tyre was of no use as the vehicle needed a complete overhaul of the rear axle and the wheel assembly. Her heart started beating fast; she looked around to see no one for miles. Her farm seemed far far away to reach…and she had no answer for the current situation...
Deserted road was still playing with the wind and twirling the grass. She felt trapped in situation, the new machine after years of savings and craving was right there in front of her not letting her leave it unattended to reach out for help and on the other side setting Sun and the her farm which required her to be there for the evening activities safeguarding it. She was trying to keep her cool but anxiety was taking the toll. About few hours or so that she kept waiting for someone to pass by for help…but no one turned up! Clock kept ticking and her mind kept playing with all evil ideas and characters she would have been afraid of thinking, she was tortured with almost insecurity and deserted feelings…
Sun was almost setting, it was bit cold so she pulled old rag from beneath the front seat and wrapped herself, as she continues to wait, it had been at least five times that she got down and went on to reanalyzed the rear wheel, as if she would get some extraordinary innovative idea, but luck seem not favoring her intellect! She was broke, small tears ran down her face and she remembered her father holding her hand and helping her pass through small challenges in her childhood days, she remembered him and wept!
While she started she had kept some fruits and portion of bread for her journey but her overconfidence mumbled and she did not bother to carry it with her at all. She was tired and hungry. The fatigue started taking over… the cool wind slowly kept caressing her and for a moment her eyes took her back down memory lane!
Ku Ku! Ku Ku! She heard a small kuku clock chiming, her eyes opened slowly! Suddenly she remembered vehicle breakdown, New machine was still there in rear and there was no one to fix the wheel assembly, she was wide awake by now and found herself in a cozy bed with a small yet bright window opening besides her, the room was modern and simple and quite! The walls were nicely painted with cool pestal colors and smalls picture frames delicately placed on the walls with some facinating posters and kids running on the beach! she realized that it's been ages that she was looking pictures of sea and the sunset over the water.
It must be late morning as she could realize looking at the morning sun. The place was unknown even the surroundings, she swa her pickup just parked outside and was fixed. She slowly, cautiously took herself off the bed and moved near the door. It was locked! She got confused, and started knocking on the door; no one seems to have heard her plea. She gave up and looked around to see a glass of milk kept on the corner table near the other side of bed; as she was hungry; she rushed towards it and emptied the glass.
She kept thinking, again started knocking the door with more force but it did not work…she choose to wait not that long as she heard a dog barking outside with someone approaching, she was worried. The attire of the room was almost claming her down and just then someone opened the door! She was shocked!!
“Sunbeam Edibles” was the most profitable venture for the oil mill celebrating twenty fourth year of operation; the neighborhood was proud and well stabilized due to hundreds of jobs running the sunflower oil processing with hundreds of machines and acres of farms producing sunflower seeds. Second floor of the administrative office was reserved only for the directors, the spacious offices indulge into profit stories and soaring demand for the produce.
The board room had all the ultra modern equipments and large glass top table, you did also noticed a nice portrait of a women with a dog standing beside a golden haired person with a mischievous smile, yes they both ran this business in the valley for decades since they met each other accidentally with one single seed crusher and a broken pickup truck. That night seems to have changed their lives as he comes from the seashore far off the country and she was the one who traded her life for her father’s dream!!
Had you noticed that frame where they both stood outside a small church in nearby village, that must had been their wedding day, she was smiling and their hands were tied together for good!! Had you noticed it…