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……”