Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Money Where the Mouth Is

The November night is almost pitch dark, and it suits me. I carry my closest friend as noiselessly as I can into the desolation. Sigh! He is heavy. I lumber and pant for a few minutes, retracing the path I took a while back, and reach the spot I had marked earlier with a spade. I place him on the ground gently, but his head hits the ground harder then I expected it to. Damn! I don't want to hurt him. Not that he would feel any pain. Muttering a silent apology, I lift the spade off the ground, and start digging. I don't have enough time. Soon, early morning travelers will pass by on their way to Lonavala. I finish digging a hole. It looks pretty shabby, but it will have to do. I pause silently for a few minutes to see if there is any noise that does not belong in the night and glance around quickly. Nothing. I try to avoid looking at the eyes of the person I admired the most, eyes that had been alluring and all-knowing, eyes that are just dead now. I lift him with care, and lay him softly inside the pit, making sure that his head touches the ground softly this time. I stand back to take a look at my handiwork. His shirt is creased near the chest, and I flatten the crease with my hands.

***
He didn't like creased shirts. He had been fastidious about clothes for as long as I could remember. He joined us at Gladden Orphanage when I was thirteen. He had been eleven. For me, life had become a routine, and I tried to be as happy as I could under the circumstances. Like all the boys around me, I lived in the present. He had been different though, always looking towards the future. With the cruelty of children, we did everything in our power to make him like us; languorous and laid-back. Fatty Farook had been the most ardent among us. I had been the least. We could sense that he wanted to get out of the hellhole. We laughed at his ambition, at his optimism, at his belief that he would one day beat the skewed system. He showed us didn't he? He reached the top of the very system, albeit briefly. He would have risen higher, if I had not intervened. I shuddered at the thought of what I have done.

By the time he left Gladden's, I was seventeen, and the closest thing he had to a friend in that whole bleak place. With all due modesty, his need for me then had been more than my need for him. Throughout his short stay, he had made enemies due to his ambition, and I had to stand up for him. In return, he valiantly tried teaching me to read English. He did not belong with us, and I was glad that he left; for his own good. A scholarship at a leading private school awaited him. His parting gift for me was a book, his favorite : Robinson Crusoe. Ironically, it was twenty eight years before we met again.

He barely needed me when I was forty five. I was one of those billions of people just trudging along life with a bare minimum of education.  I was still around the orphanage, doing a motley of jobs, running all sorts of errands. Some called it allegiance, but it was probably a simple lack of opportunities elsewhere. I was, of course, unmarried, what with the male-female ratio and all that. Driving a pick-up loaded with some half-broken furniture for the children, I was surprised to see an expensive car standing in the driveway of Gladden's. We rarely had adoptions. Even the charitable expect some standards before they could be generous. I didn't recognize him when I spotted him chatting with the caretaker. It was only after he noticed me, exclaimed gladly, came forward to shake my hands amicably, and introduced himself did I recollect the eyes, and then his face. It was probably an indication of how little I had changed, and how much he had changed. Knowing him, I shouldn't have been; but I was surprised that this rich man in branded garb had once grown up with me, and needed me. He had become a Features Editor of a popular magazine based in Mumbai. I was a nobody. We talked for a few hours. We went around the village in his brand-new car, a nostalgic cruise for him, yet another trip through nauseatingly familiar terrain for me. He wanted to offer me some money, but I was too proud to accept it. He was too persistent. It had to be a job then. "What can you do?", he asked. Everything. And nothing.

I packed my sparse belongings, including the copy of Robinson Crusoe, and moved with him to Bombay. I was to be his personal driver, however my job description had not changed much. I still had to do a variety of errands. But I loved it. Once again, I was content too soon with what life was offering me. That's how I have always been. Him, on the other hand; he kept growing in popularity and reputation. His ambition was matched only by his tirelessness. He was constantly busy. Though he made it a point to inquire on my well-being every morning, there were no conversations as such. Not yet. I didn't mind it. I had too much respect for what he had become and how he conducted himself to worry about such petty things. I still have much respect for him.

Apart from his Editorial work, he was working on a novel. It was while working on this book, about a writer not completely sure of his own abilities, that madame killed herself. The doctors concluded that it had been due to depression. She had been weird even as a child. There was a police inquiry, but they realized soon that no one was to blame. Asha madam, his daughter, didn't seem to agree though. She blamed her father, and accused him of being negligent. She forbade herself from talking to him.

His daughter's silence affected him more than his wife's loss. His way of battling sadness was through working hard. He finished his first novel, which won him much praise all over. I bought a copy for myself as soon as it was published, but gave up on it. His writing was too tough to follow. It was not until recently, after patient efforts to improve my vocabulary all through my spare time, was I able to read the book completely. Needless to say, I think the book is wonderfully written. He also quit his job and founded his own magazine. In five years, he had recruited tough, no-nonsense journalists; conducted various sting operations; exposed numerous corrupt bureaucrats and ministers; and become a reputed name throughout the nation. His wife's death made him magnanimous. He was generous to anyone who wanted assistance. I would be sent to Gladden's twice every year to personally ensure that they had everything they needed. It was around this time that he started conversing with me. He would confess his insecurities, and offer his observations. I was an attentive student, always amazed by his knowledge of the ways of the World, and filled with an ostentatious display of admiration.  His one vice -- he insisted on calling it a vice -- was his charm. He would always be able to get people to do what he wanted, without even letting them realize it. Women always fell for his eyes, and his ready wit. At Gladden's, these traits had been of no use; but in his social circle, these were the very traits that won him adulation.

Through all these, he also managed to finish his second book, a contemplative book on the state of women in the country - "What Turns Men into Beasts". Once again, I brought myself a copy as soon as it was published, and this time, I was able to finish reading it quickly. The book had modern ideas on how women need to be treated. I initially found it tough to digest. But as I thought about it, along with the fact that he was seldom wrong, I did see sense in it. I read it a second time, and fell in love with it. I marked the most lucid of lines with a pencil, and copied them to a notebook. He was proud of the book too. When I mentioned about my notebook in the passing, he smiled. "Never trust people, people change, but words don't", he would tell me. "The best way to respect a person is to respect their words".  The book was raved about by the critics, and won an award -- a statuette with his name engraved in it -- from the Goa literary festival. The statuette had been his most prized possession.

***

It is getting late. I can't stand here reminiscing all day. Not that I mind getting caught, but I owe myself a chance at the least. Lifting the statuette from my back pocket, I place it beside him. His hands are covered with rashes. Rashes that had not been there yesterday, when I had offered him his last cup of coffee. Strong, with extra sugar. And some arsenic. Picking up the spade to fill the gaping and conspicuous hole, I look for the last time at the man who had trusted me with his life. He looks at peace with himself.

***

I had been with him for six years when he met Rituji. By now, Asha madam had partly reconciled with her father. As he confessed to me later, "time and love healed what it could". Asha madam introduced her friend, a budding journalist, to her father. He quickly anticipated her request, and offered Rituji a job. Rituji turned out to be an enthusiastic apprentice, quickly learning the tricks of her trade. Like me, she revered him. Her talent, and probably his personal attention towards her, enabled her to sidestep many and climb up the corporate ladder quickly, all within a couple of years. For this year's Idea Festival -- organized by his magazine as India's most eclectic, thought-provoking and egalitarian platform for ideas from across the globe -- she was assigned as the personal escort for the most important guests. The festival was held in Goa. I stayed back at Mumbai, as I was supposed to drive Asha madam to the Idea Festival a couple of days after the festival begun.

It was on our way to Goa that Asha madam received the phone call. The call seemed to have come from Rituji, and Asha madam sounded quite upset after the call. I was asked to directly drive to Grand Hyatt hotel. It took me a little more that forty minutes to reach the driveway of the Grand Hyatt. Rituji was waiting outside, looking agitated. We picked her up, and I was asked to drive to the Crown. Strangely, as I picked her up and reversed out of the driveway, I spotted him in the rear-view mirror. For the first time ever, he looked remorseful.  I could hear snatches of the conversation from the backseat as we drove away. The word "molested" was repeated several times, along with "second time" and "elevator". "I saw him doing this to a woman when I was thirteen, so it doesn't surprise me anymore", said Asha madam. A couple of days later, in Mumbai, he confessed to me. He regretted his "lapse of judgement", but it seemed that his daughter's awareness caused him to repent more than the incident itself.

***

My watch shows 03:43 as I finish covering the hole with mud. I take a step back to take in my work. Again, It looks pretty shabby, but it will have to do. I don't have much time now. Where will I go next? I will have to abandon the car here. Of course, it will lead them to him. But he deserves to be found before he decays. I owe him that. I will walk towards Lonavala, there is a bus stand a few kilometers down. And take a bus somewhere. A final visit to Gladden's perhaps. Gladden's will miss his generous donations. But he had been a principled man, and he would have understood why I did it. He might have approved too. I will miss him, and his wisdom. I look at his grave for one last time. A line from What Turns Men into Beasts comes back to my mind : "A man who treats a woman badly does not deserve to live". I respect you Taran. There is no better way to show that than respecting your words. Goodbye.

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