Sunday, November 19, 2006

‘Need a fresh suicide case!’

A ‘phoreigner’ stood perplexed and evidently tense at my door early one morning in February, last. Rubbing my eyes and still yawning, I tried figuring out if this creature was a Chinese, a Korean, a Japanese or none of these! He was a Korean, a South Korean, accompanying a team of journalists from his country’s state-run TV channel. Their purpose: A documentary on the dying farmers.

After the customary exchange of pleasantries, the Koreans were firing a volley of questions at me – from credit issue to input prices to cotton imports to subsidies. As I spoke, the Korean translator explained it to his friends and vice a versa.

The taxi driver, the same Ram who has driven me to tens of villages for the past six years or so, had brought them to my home straight from the airport. That’s how they had discovered me, and I discovered them, bang at my doorstep.

But the week they spent in the region was indeed a hard work. They had done a thorough homework of the issue. They knew the composition of districts, people who were in trouble, factors at play, features of state politics and much more.

Reflecting their sensitivity, the Korean journalists did a fabulous job in the end.

Tens of foreign correspondents have been flocking to Vidarbha to do stories on continuing farmers’ suicides in this past year or so. The region had never seen so many ‘esteemed’ visitors in its history ever. Many of them though discovered Nagpur for the first time and some even had difficulty in pronouncing Amravati. Worse still, Buldhana. A majority of them knew Wardha, thanks to ‘Bapu’.

Yet they came. They were sent, so they came. Many had left their hearts at home. Still they wrote; pieces after pieces, exploring new angles. Some are still trying to “discover” what’s new in the story, and what all could they cover afresh. Alas suicide is too sombre a story to be written about; and farmer, not very “hot”.

Then there was one, who wrote to me she wanted a “fixer” not realizing that the connotation is a ‘slang’ in India, even if it means genuine money in the west.

Soon after, a scribe from a US newspaper followed another from his rival paper to “find the truth.” No, not the truth behind the farm suicides per se, but his rival’s tour itinerary in the region! Did he at all visit the villages in Vidarbha? As this guy discovered, he did. His search for truth ended in Yavatmal, where he himself encountered a family, which had lost its headman and was starving.
Post PM’s visit – since July 2006 – there were two such high-profile journalists coming in and heading for the suicide country almost every month. We needed translators from Italian to English to Italian; from French to English to French. Sadly, there was not one! To that extent, we missed this “opportunity.” Isn’t that the word used for professional excellence? “Opportunity.” There’s lot of it here in farm suicides, I am slowly discovering from many of those esteemed guests.

To be fair to our own “national patrakars”, 2005-06 and 06-07 would surely go down in the history of journalism for a much better coverage of this issue.

Conversely some local journalists are in a sense of disbelief. Some of them have actually begun to question their own volition. By saying that not all suicides are genuine! Geek! Farmers are genuinely dying, but reasons are not genuine. May be, they are dying due to unbearable stomachache or too much of alcoholism, or domestic quarrels, but not due to indebtedness. Some of them are dying, as some journalists argue, due to newspapers’ reporting of suicide, or because the state government pays Rs 1 lakh compensation to their families post their death.

Actually, there were – and are – three streams of tourists coming in: One, the bureaucrats and researchers, the scientists and the politicians (I’ve clubbed them all into one group), the other, of course, the journalists, and the third one, (guess who?), the spiritual gurus, the ‘Babalog’. The third one is here to stay forever.

But the most bizarre query of all was (and this one was from a TV crew): “Is there a fresh suicide, the freshest the better. Great, if it happened moments ago. We will simply go live!” Oops! A dead farmer, live on the TV! “It would make the story hit the conscience of our audiences.” To their luck, they indeed got one!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

They dared to speak up; were slaughtered

“Surekha’s only fault was that she’d challenged the village upper-castes and that too the landlords. And she’d dared to crave for self-esteem and dignity,” says a broken Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, 50, a dalit farmer, a shadow of himself today. Last week, he helplessly saw brutality and barbarism knock on his door and wipe off his family – his wife and three children. His worst fears came true September 29.
As Kherlanji wears ghostly silence, ostensibly sheltering injustice, Bhaiyyalal packs up his house – a cramped hut with nothing in it actually – to move in with his in-laws at Deulgaon village, 20 km away. But fear and terror emanates from his swollen eyes, mirroring the truth that the entire government administration, the police and the political class are fighting hard to cover up for a week now.
But the Kherlanji’s bestiality is too hard to be suppressed.
Bhaiyyalal’s wife Surekha, 44, his daughter Priyanka, 18, sons, Roshan, 23, and Sudhir, 21, were first stripped naked, dragged from their hut to the choupal 500 metres away and hacked to death by the entire village of the so called upper-castes, but not before demonstrating the savagery that sends shivers down the spine of a mauled Bhaiyyalal, the lone survivor and fallen family’s headman.
The meek farmer is yet to come to terms with the incident that he witnessed from some distance hiding behind a hut. He’s broken and shudders every moment, uncertain of his life, confused and fearful. It has been a week but nobody has spoken to him from the government administration about the mass killing.
Surekha and her daughter Priyanka were humiliated, bitten, beaten black and blue and then gang-raped in full public view for an hour before they fell dead. “The marauders had pushed sticks into their private parts,” says a policeman, asking not to be named. The two sons were kicked and stabbed repeatedly. The assaulters then mutilated their private parts too, disfigured their faces and tossed them in air before the twosome lay dead on the ground. “When the dusk had settled, four bodies of this dalit family lay strewn at the village choupal, with the killers pumping their fists and still kicking the bodies. The rage was not over. Some angry men even raped the badly mutilated corpses of the two women.”
“Not a single woman, save one, from the village tried to intervene or stop their men from doing it,” cries Bhaiyyalal. “I was too terrified to run to their help.”
Intriguingly, the post-mortem report says Surekha and Priyanka were not raped.
“Doctors were managed, and the police bribed,” alleges Rashtrapal Narnaware, Surekha’s nephew. “Every one in Kherlanji knows what happened with my aunt and cousins, every one was a witness to the heinous crime,” he says furiously.
The police now await the report of second autopsy that was done on October 5 by a team of doctors after exhuming the bodies buried at Deulgaon following mounting pressure. Police admit the bodies were without even a shred of cloth.
Bhaiyyalal says the Kherlanji villagers, who perpetrated the crime, called for a village meeting an hour after the incident with bodies still lying on the road and issued a ‘fatwa’ that nobody would open their mouth about the incident.
In Kherlanji, villagers don’t speak. “They won’t,” says a policeman sent here to maintain ‘law and order’ situation. “But frankly,” he says, “the incident shows that there was no law and no order for years; there isn’t any even today.”
Police say the assaulters threw the bodies at different places in the periphery of the village. Priyanka’s body was recovered from a canal only the next afternoon, and that was how the matter came to light. But the police and administration, dictated by a political regime that sensed deep trouble, saw to it that even the Dalit leaders kept mum, as the incident would have been explosive during the October 2 Dhammakranti anniversary programme at Nagpur’s Deekshabhoomi.
Kherlanji is a village of 780 people – about 170 households, some 50 km north of Bhandara town off the Tumsar road. From Nagpur, it would be about 120 km. It falls in Mohadi tehsil. The Bhotmanges were one of the two Mahar families of the village that is dominated by the OBCs, the landlord clans here. Bhaiyyalal had moved to this village to farm his mother’s 5-acre land about 18 years ago. But it was Surekha, who tilled her farm and fought for regaining the hold over a portion grabbed by the upper castes, which is a decisive political force in this part.
A cramped hut of the Bhotmanges stands proof of their abject poverty. Despite that, Surekha toiled hard to send her children to school and then colleges.
Priyanka, a NCC cadet who dreamt of joining the armed forces, was preparing for her HSC this year, Bhaiyyalal wails. “My wife saved some money last year and bought her a bicycle,” he tells us. “She was very intelligent.”
The two sons helped them in farming and earned extra money by working as labourers. “Routinely the villagers drove tractors over our standing crop.”
“Surekha,” says her inconsolable sister Sudan Raul, “was taught a lesson because she fought for her land. She feared their end was nearing.” Just a week ago, says Sudan, Surekha came with her daughter to visit us, and said the villagers would not spare them. But no one had ever imagined such a shocking end.
“Not one of her children could survive,” says Drupata bai, Surekha’s old mother, with her eyes fixed on the ground. “Did the murderers not have a heart?”
The plot was meticulously planned. First, the village heads tarnished her character. They propagated that she had illicit relation with the Police-Patil of neighbouring Dhusala village Siddharth Gajbhiye, who was actually her cousin. Siddharth, a dalit too, was the only person who stood by this family.

The District Superintendent of Police, Suresha Sagar, holds: “This incident is the height of brutality.” He clears Surekha had no illicit relations with Siddharth.
He admits the Andhalgaon police did not attend to the calls of the Bhotmanges, or investigate the crime immediately after the incident. Siddharth had in fact made a desperate call to the police station when he learnt that the Bhotmanges were being slaughtered. “The call was made around 6.15 pm,” says Bhaiyyalal.
Thirty-two persons have been arrested so far. Many more arrests would follow. As of now, the main perpetrators are still free, say the Deulgaon villagers.
The SP reveals he is issuing the suspension orders to a PSI and a head constable at Andhalgaon police station, under which the village falls.
But the police lapses seem far more and too grave. The police had refused to lodge the complaints of the Bhotmanges for over a decade now. That is since the woman took up the cudgels to recover the lost portion of land. They clearly sided with the landlords, says Rashtrapal, and that was the reason why even Siddharth went to Kamptee and got himself admitted to a private hospital after being beaten almost fatally by the Kherlanji village lords on September 3. That was the provocation of the latest tension that culminated into the September 29 mayhem.
The things had come to a boil. “The villagers had pronounced that killing a mere Mahar family of the village wouldn’t harm any of them,” alleges Bhaiyyalal, fighting hard his tears, as he recounts living in years of the village-regression.
Siddharth’s younger brother Rajendra took him to Kamptee in Nagpur district, 100 km from the village, because he knew it was safer.
“Here, it would have been too risky for him,” says Siddharth’s son Rahul, who’s doing his engineering from a private college at Ramtek.
The doctors at the private hospital realized that this was a police case, and then referred him to the government hospital at Kamptee. The Kamptee police lodged an offence and referred the case back to the Bhandara police for investigation.
That was when the offences were registered against 14 persons of Kherlanji, and when the police paraded the accused for identification, Surekha and Bhaiyyalal identified them, notwithstanding the reigning threat of a village-goon and one of the masterminds of the heinous crime. On the morning of September 29 the 14 persons were arrested and produced before a Mohadi court and released on bail. No sooner had they been set free than the persons first drove down to Kandri, a village ten km from Kherlanji, in search of Rajendra and Siddharth. But when they did not find them, they rushed to their village baying for the blood of the Bhotmanges. When they reached the hut of the dalit family, they found Surekha and her children preparing the evening meal; Bhiayyalal was not at home. They were armed with sharp weapons and sticks, informs Bhaiyyalal, who was at a stone’s throw away distance when the assaulters were dragging his children and wife having stripped them off their clothes. Rajendra was with him. And they both witnessed the murderous assault unfurl before them over the next one-and-a-half hour or more, before the two slipped out in to darkness to safety.
(Post script: No MLA or MP from Bhandara has visited the village or Bhaiyyalal, more than a week after the gruesome killing took place. Two MLAs from Nagpur, ostensibly sent by the Congress higherups, visited Kherlanji, but did not make any noise. The police are not acting fast and the only two prime witnesses are under threat. Not a single villager's statement has been recorded. Neighbouring villages are living with fear and terror, especially the minority lower castes.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

When the ‘Madam’ came calling…

It was a small gathering, but powerful one. A district collector, two sitting MLAs, three contractors, a head of the district unit of a national party, and a leader of another national party, now in the opposition – by all means, each one enjoyed a clout in the government, and a position in the politics of this Gandhian district.

The year: 2004. Month: September. I sat sheepishly on a corner chair in the third row facing the revenue collector of that district in his chamber, watching, for two and a half hours, hectic activities and discussions between him and the members of that august gathering. There were of course a number of intruders in between. And cell phones rang with impunity. Many of those calls got cut brusquely.

Well… there were many important issues to be fixed in quick time. Who will lay the road? How much budget? Who will bring the garlands? How many? In how much time would the money be released for the emergency op? Guest list? Who would manage the media? And who should receive the compensation-cheques?

The first few questions were resolved quickly, I noticed. Within a few minutes, in fact. The three contractors were indeed going to get the contracts for laying roads to the villages where Madam would go. The two MLAs, would get the cut in that. The leader of the district unit of the party now had to ensure that the administration selected at least one farming family from the constituency of the state president of the party. Otherwise, it would be a dampener on his growth prospects, and possibility of getting the party ticket for elections. The last question – who would get the cheques – was therefore very hotly contested for much of the time.

Each of the MLAs proposed a name of the farmer who had committed suicide in their respective constituency. And the leader of the opposition proposed the third name. “Three families, that’s final?” asked the collector. “No,” interrupted the district party president. “Take one from our madam’s constituency,” he pressed. “Remember,” he told the two MLAs, “we must take one from her area.”

Thankfully, this district had no dearth of dead peasants – those who committed suicide in distress.

“Take that family, what’s the name? Yes, Deshmukh. That will be good. The surname is perfect, and it suits madam,” he suggested.

“Is that final?” the collector asked again.

The opposition leader said, “it’s okay, as long as you are including the family I proposed from my constituency. What’s the name, I forget? But good, there’s an old man, an old woman in there. It would also make a good picture.”

“Okay then, one from madam’s constituency, one from your area Mr Opposition leader, and one from your constituency, Mr MLA (one of the two, he pointed his fingers at), so this is final. Mr Joshi (the collector’s deputy), these are the final names. Madam and the chief minister will visit them,” a much relieved district collector said handing out a chit to his deputy.

“You may now release these names to the press by the evening, we have only three days left.”

The deputy took the list, penned down a few notes and left.

As this was over, one of the three petite-looking contractors mumbled: “Sir, the sum will be released soon? See to it that it does. We are not waiting for it, I just thought since it’s emergency situation, it would help us get the work done fast.”

The collector smiled wryly and nodded his head with eyes embedded down on a piece of paper in a file.

“Don’t worry, your work will be done in time,” he remarked.

The contractors smiled in happiness. The other dignitaries in the chamber joined the chorus. Every one shook hands. The meeting was successfully over.

The contractors had to lay the road to the three villages, where, in the next two days, a huge caravan of the country’s top-most political leaders would travel, in their pursuit to play guardians of the ‘aam-admi’, a month before the state went in to elections.

Vidarbha countryside was burning, and it burnt for all four years that this government was in the power. So the opposition had an edge. The sitting coalition had managed to convince Madam that her visit was necessary in the run-up to the elections, lest they shall lose the ground to the saffron flags.

It was all the more needed because just a fortnight ago, the opposition coalition’s top leadership traveled in a few villages, distributing money for the photo-ops to the mourning families of the farmers who had taken their own lives in that season.

If the party wants to return to power, Madam must visit the region and distribute aid to a few families, to show that her party still stood by the poorest of the poor.

Madam, feeling empathetic to the deceased farmers, decided to come.

Three families were in despair; each had seen a young farmer member of their family commit suicide, unable to see the growing distress in the family, mounting debts, biting hunger and no hope at the end of the dark tunnel.

Two farmers had left behind their widows and young children, struggling to take education.

The third had left his old parents, and an unmarried sister. He was a graduate himself.

All three farmers had committed suicide by consuming pesticide – Endosulphane, a poison that knocks ones life within seconds of consuming it. In Vidarbha that's what farmers have been consuming to kill themselves.

The list of the farmers ending themselves in the region was burgeoning. And the three families chosen for the ‘compensation award’ were the ones who were first rejected as ‘misfit suicide cases for compensation’ by the same administration.

Hours before her arrival, it was decided that Madam will now visit only one family in a village, and the other two at the makeshift helipad. These families would be transported to meet her at the spot in official vehicles. The district administration decided that Madam would deliver cheque to the widow she visits in the village, while the two other families would get the cheques at the hands of the chief minister, who would also travel with his party president.

That way the picture would look balanced. Apparently, this subtle change was made at the behest of some one from the party ranks. It was silently pushed in.

The aid: Rs 30,000 in cash and Rs 70,000 as postal deposits that would give a monthly income of Rs 457.

To distribute 3 lakh rupees, the government spent, not less than, Rs 50 crore on the high-profile visit – hiring vehicles to preparing a helipad to managing the media, the spending on the one-day bonhomie was not certainly going to be a small affair.

After all, it was election time. The money the families would receive could neither wipe out their outstanding debts, nor bring back the lost one. It would, though, make or break the party’s election chances.

The village got a facelift, overnight. Hundreds of policemen occupied its every nook and corner, its every square inch.

Several houses got painted free of cost, and internal cramped roads leading up to the Deshmukh house got tarred.

The small village forgot its tragedy in that euphoria, and the family, its pains. Madam’s visit to their place was no small a fete for them.

In the death of its headman, the family had hogged the limelight suddenly – journalists, photographers, bureaucrats, there was no dearth of visitors to this household.

Madam had come calling on them. The two other families forgot their grief too. They sat in a car for the first time, perhaps savouring one happy moment.

A month later, when I visited the three families, it was a scene of more despair and grief.

The widow of Deshmukh had lost her money to the private lender, who had lent her husband money for inputs. Her son and a daughter had dropped out of school. Two years on, the woman still does not have her farm well dug, or electricity dues waved.

Alas, they were just high-profile pre-election promises not really meant to honour.

In the other two households too, money provided no relief, no panacea.

The old man in one family died for the want of medical attention in October 2005, a year after he lost his son, who committed suicide in his farm. The old man could not marry off his youngest daughter.

The third widow has migrated to her maternal home in Amravati, where she works as a landless labourer, in addition to the Rs 457 that she gets from postal savings.

And farmers’ suicides continue to haunt the dusty countryside of Vidarbha.

Madam’s visit paid off to her party in a big way though!

It could salvage some of its lost ground and wrest a few seats in the region where farmers were seething with rage against the ruling coalition. It returned to power in the state that year.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The killing fields...

For the New Year revelers, it was just the beginning of a party – a bash sunk in spirits and lined with a vulgar display of firecrackers, which burst one by one and illuminated the moonlit skies all over.

Not far from the dazzling display by the city’s noveau rich, in the dusty by-lanes of a village in Vidarbha’s countryside, one more farming family sat mourning the suicide by its headman.

The farmer had finally decided to call it quits from a long-drawn struggle that looked endless. He lay dead in peace. For his family though, it would be a road full of thorns ahead.

Next morning, back in my house, as the telephone refused to stop ringing with the New Year greetings pouring in from the callers, my attention was focused on a figure dotting the headline of a language daily. It read: 201, and counting.

An independent worker’s list though had kissed 210 by then.

May be, this language daily was a trifle behind the surging figure.

Whatever, the New Year, surely, does not look any better for the near three million cotton farmers of the region. And by the end of March, I was right. The number of suicides had crossed 400. How do you rate the year gone by? Ask market watchers, and they’d say “excellent”!

And it’s true. For the market players, it was a good year. But that’s exactly what lies beneath the crisis, which is matching the great Indian depressions of the late 19th and early 20th century: hunger on one side, and endless free lunch on other.

Suicides are just an underlining aspect of the Vidarbha’s agriculture crisis, and not the only.

The farm crisis is about much more than that. It’s about inequality that breeds exploitation and legitimizes oppression. It’s also about cornering of the resources, land, water and forest, besides minerals, by the corporate. It’s about the state slowly withdrawing itself from its bounden responsibility for the welfare of its people without any prejudice or bias towards lower castes, tribe or any poor. And it’s about the state’s withdrawal from essential sectors – water, power and employment to name a few.

Everything is being corporatised. It is not just the number of farm-related suicides that is mind-boggling. The way the governments have reacted – or not reacted – to the situation is equally baffling.

At least sixteen committees and panels – from the National Farmers Commission led by Professor M S Swaminathan to the Planning Commission’s fact-finding-mission led by a bureaucrat named Adarsh Misra – came this year in to Vidarbha, apparently peeved and concerned over the appalling if explosive situation.

This is apart from tens of journalists – from the esteemed national and international media hatchets, who made a beeline for special stories on the farmers’ suicides.

A small difference though between bureaucrats’ visit and that of the journalists was that the former caravan spent a little more time than the latter community on the field.

Many journalists, save exceptions, simply came rushing by the morning or evening flights (and thank God for that, there are flights to and from Nagpur), and went equally rushing to the place they came from.

But they wrote something this time in their respective publications; most of them confused whether to write about families’ problems, or sorry state of widows, or poverty plaguing the cotton farmers, or private moneylenders (whom the government made out to be the draconian villains in the whole game), or – as one national newspaper concluded with strong 18-point-bold headline – lack of market reforms in Vidarbha region.

Many journalists also discovered that Vidarbha is an eastern part of Maharashtra, and Maharashtra is bigger than Mumbai. The bureaucrats thankfully knew that already.

Then there were independent researchers and study panels in addition to the ones commissioned by the Maharashtra Government.

They too studied the situation, and submitted voluminous reports with some recommendations.

Many of the visitors simply came as a part of their duty – some one ordered and they came – on what is now termed as “distress tourism.” Poor farmers are dying, so we need to know why?

All of them came to study problems, when the cause was much near them, at the places they came from, in the huge corridors of power.

It was not that nothing came out of it. Professor Swaminathan’s recommendatory suggestions would go down big way in reversing the situation.

A few other study committees mapped the complex problems with magical finesse. But the sum total of all that exercise, I am still wondering why, is zero.

The governments at the state and center aren’t unduly disturbed by the suicides or keen to act decisively.

Why? Is that because there aren’t any elections now? Or is it because there are no opposition parties to corner the governments on the issues? Or is it also because the media are making no noise, as they do over the other flimsy issues. The rage among the farmers is growing, the distress deepening and the hope sinking.

Only a few days ago, angry farmers hurled onions at Sharad Pawar, the Union Minister of Agriculture, as he spoke from a huge dais in a public meeting at Nasik.

Luckily, Pawar did not dare come in Vidarbha and address farmers ever since he took over as the agriculture minister of the country, though he did come to Nagpur before the BCCI elections (ostensibly to draft his strategy for the elections of the richest cricket body). And you can’t hurt the minister by cotton.

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Numerologist

Monday, March 31, 2006

The old man was furious. “Hey! Heeyyee!” he yelled at the top of his voice. The waiter finally cared to turn and look at him.

The cantankerous man sitting on the table opposite us fell silent. So did the discussions on other tables. All eyes in the restaurant stared at us through the hazy smoke of cigarrette that was in the air. The old man, sitting opposite me on my table, was still effervescently angry. He was unable to calm down.

Usually, the coffee house at this bustling square in the city’s heart turns into a bazaar at noon. Poor waiter, he could not hear, in that noisy chattering, the old man’s calls – rather wails – for a cup of coffee.

Nothing wrong in that. But the old man thought it was a criminal mistake!

“These waiters don’t think I am worth anything. Bull shit, I pay for my coffee you see! I tell you they’ve lost their sincerity,” he said in his husky voice.

You? Did he mean me? I mean, is he talking to me. Huh, I’d better avoid!

The old man was angry. The waiter had not answered his calls for the last, may be, six and a half minutes (but the man reasoned with me that he was calling the waiter for the last hour or so! Exaggeration? Yes, but who’d argue with a fatherly figure, so I went with his estimate: one hour).

“Get me one strong coffee”, the old man thundered again at the waiter, as though he was purchasing the whole coffee house at a go.

He must be a chain smoker, I felt. I must stay off, I told myself, like a cool customer. For, chances are that such people pick up a topic with you and then bore you. They normally discuss, ponder over, and then coin new suggestions for solving all the world’s problems. Usually they blame the young generation for that mess. I knew of an old man, who was also a cribbing creature.

I must complete this book before 1, I told myself. Then, I must start for my home, take some rest, and then, may be, call on an old friend, party in the evening…or check out with the latest movie or whatever.

“I am …,” the old man butted in, keeping the cup down in the saucer, after relishing the first sip of the coffee.

It was an unwelcome infringement. He had snapped my day-dreaming.

But the old man had calmed down, and settled. He had by then taken out a chit of paper and a pencil to scribble something on the paper; he drew a box, sketched some lines… I looked around, the coffee house was on fire again.

Customers had returned to their table-discussions. The noise was deafening as it was before Mr (I hadn’t got his name properly) Angry Old Man – yeah, that’s what suited him perfect I thought – yelled at the waiter. I paused, to realise that even I was back to reading the book and day-dreaming!

“What’s your name?” He was a little pushy this time. I noticed he was smoking a hand-made cigarette, with a bundle lying open on the table near the saucer.

I reluctantly, and in subdued anger, introduced myself as a journalist, a writer and a researcher. He looked amused. And naturally so.

In a small town, a person with all of that was an improbability, he must have thought. His looks gave me that impression.

“I am an astrologer. Better still, a numerologist. Tell me…”

This time I cut him short. “You are not starting it on me now, I hope,” I said with a smile.

“Oh jast a minute,” he said lighting a new bidi. He sounded soft this time, much like that of a grand-fatherly affection.

Belching the smoke right from his lungs, he resumed: “ha..tell me your birthdate.” The bidi lay hung from his mouth perilously, as if it would fall down any moment. But Mr Anrgy Old Man looked perfect with it. He appeared used to it – Smoking and talking simultaneously, with a bidi in his mouth.

I gave up finally, and revealed my birth date. Then, I got myself buried in the book again.

Intermittently though, I glanced at the old man. He was still buried in some calculations. I saw that he scribbled hastily on the piece of paper and then fell silent for some time, as if he was lost in thoughts. Then he murmured something to himself, before falling silent again, and gazing through the smoke he just belched after a puff of bidi. The process, I saw, continued till he thought he had found a break-through. This was followed by scribbling something on the paper again.

What do I do now, I wondered. I can’t move. I can’t leave the coffee house, because by now – honestly – I was too curious to know what was in store for me in my lacklustre life. I better know what his calculations suggest, I felt.

“Boy,” he announced, keeping his pen in the pocket and adjusting himself on the chair. He looked set for a long sermon.

“Oh boy!” I pitied myself, “You have a situation!”

But he continued. I was – admittedly – a bit nervous now. What’s in store for me in future?

Looking into his notes, he said, “You are laying your foundation for a big leap. Remember, you are about to take off three years from now. The fruits of your efforts and hard-work are in sight. Wait for a couple of years patiently.”

I felt great, elated, and on cloud nine. And much relieved too. Who won’t feel great after hearing such good things about self?

“Trudge carefully though for the next six months,” the old man advised. (I’d by then dropped the word Angry from the Angry-Old-Man.)

I will, certainly, I nodded, keeping aside my book, with a growing interest in his findings.

“What do you wear on your fingers?” He asked me.

Nothing, I shrugged.

“You’d better start wearing the stone,” he said, his eyes locked at something that he’d scribbed about my birthdate on the piece of paper.

“What’s that?” I asked him worriedly.

“A little scar on your otherwise good future, wear a stone and every thing would be alright.”

And how does a stone make the future alright? I asked.

“Do not ask questions. Just do as I tell you; it’ll be good for you,” he scoffed back.

Then, taking a deep breath, he ordered one more cup of coffee. And this time, the waiter did not take any chances. He was prompt and quick.

“So, where do I get this stone?” I asked him.

“Go to any good jeweller,” he said. “And offer prayers to the rising Sun when you get up, he’s the lord of your destiny,” he advised.

“I get up late since I work late nights,” I told him bluntly.

“That’s okay, whenever you get up, first offer your prayers to the sun,” he said.

“And, also keep a photograph of your parents with you. Offer prayers to them every Thursday and Saturday,” the old man said.

Then, he added a few more dos and donts to that list, before winding up.

Meanwhile, I paid for his coffee bills too. After hearing so many good things about myself, I was obliged to do that little service to the old man.

“Come home sometime,” he said, getting up from his chair and about to leave the coffee house.

“I am alone, normally.” He added with a tinge of sadness. “I stay in a small room nearby. Come some time, I will be very happy if you come. I love company of young guys like you, in fact I love to be amongst people”

“Oh yes, why not. I’d come certainly.”

“And do respect your parents, son,” he said softly, his voice a bit chocked this time. “You’ve a great future. But don’t forget your parents in your long and tedious journey ahead.” He patted me and left. But soon turned back and walked towards me. “Don’t be like my son. He dumped me after the death of my wife. He took all my post-retirement money and drove me out of home.”

The Old Man left the coffee house on his old bicycle. His last words made me deaf to the loud and irritating chattering in the restaurant.

I sighed! Poor man, I said to myself. He’s all alone in this world, dumped by his young son, whom he must have raised bearing all the hardships.

I came out to see him drive down the othe end of the road. He was soon gone in the thick crowd on the busylanes of the city.

Looking at the sky, I saw the Sun. He was there, as ever. But it was never so shinning and bright for me as this time!

The Dormitory

the dormitory

Sunday, January 16, 2005

It's always an experience to be a part of this room, a dormitory of a hotel in Mumbai's bustling Dadar locality. I prefer to stay here whenever I visit this mad mad city. I know this place for some years now. It's fun, besides convenience, to put up here for a short visit.

It has six cots, each accompanied by a small almirah to keep your luggage safe in the room. Two young funny guys sit outside. They are the room boys.

It's neat and clean and tidy. And by Mumbai's standard, it's quite cheap - 300 bucks for a day's stay! Cheap! Ummm?

And Mr Sinha, one of my five dormitory-mates this time, also feels the same as I do. I met him the evening I checked in. He has the looks of a man who has held top positions. He was an IAS officer; retired just a year ago, I learnt from him within minutes of our interaction. I trusted him. After all, I had no other option. I am a journalist, I said. And he trusted me.

The subject was politics, as it always is in a gathering. And Mr Sinha went burst. "These bastards, what are you talking about them! These bastards don't have brains to run this country. Saale humko kehte hai...tumko akal nahin! Now these aanguthachhaps will teach us the business...." Mr Sinha must have had a bad brush with some leader, I thought.

His intervention in my conversation with other guy in the room had prompted me to introduce myself and know about him. Which he did without any problem.

In fact, Mr Sinha was very eager to introduce himself. He spoke loudly so that the other occupants in the room could also hear him . Others had no option. I was of course the worst hit, for I had started the conversation. He had, alas, found in me an audience.

And what brings you to Mumbai? I asked him in the momentum of the conversation, only to repent later. I should not have asked him another question, I felt.

Mr Sinha was in Mumbai to deliver lectures at a workshop organised by some company on marketing principles. He earned heavily from that, he said as if trying to impress me. Mr Sinha was quick to add, to avoid any misconception that, he thought, I could have had.

"Actually, you see, I can stay in rooms at any hotel. Money is no problem. Those bloody companywallas pay for my stay. Why will they not? If they bloody want my expertise, they better pay my bills. I get good money for my lectures also. I've written 12 books."

As he continued, I fell silent.

"But I prefer to stay in this dormitory; I had had a heart attack once while I was travelling in Mumbai..."

Oh! I said. How long back was that?

And Mr Sinha, who had earlier told me that he was in hurry to go out for dinner, sat firmly on his bed, and took a complete one hour to narrate the whole story. Intermittently, when I threw a look at the other samaritans in the room, I could see a deep sympathy for me in their eyes.

A fatherly Mr Sinha has no other audience in the room. A Sikh businessman from Chandigarh replaced one Mr Puri from Delhi who left for Pune yesterday. Mr Arora has been kind enough to share some of my responsibilities. He too is giving a good audience to Mr Sinha. And Mr Sinha now addresses him as well, so that I can do the work that brought me to Mumbai.

I still have to hear him in the evenings.

Mr Sinha has settled in Kanpur with his wife. He got married after his first serious love fell apart because his strict father, he said, was opposed to his affair. The memories still upset him. Or at least he pretends to be very upset over his failed affair. But more than the failure of his affair, he's annoyed with his father, who did not allow him have his way. The woman whom he married on the insistence of his mother is still his wife, by the way, Mr Sinha said.

He's been doing most of the talking. At 59, he looks 70. And that is enough to lend credence to his story. But he's joyous. Tragically for his age, he's too many diseases to deal with. One, he's already had an open heart. Two, he's a diabetic. Three, which is good for him and bad for others, he loves talking about himself! Yup, most of the time. There's no dearth of stories...

For instance, he'd tell you how he fired a Minister once on a policy when he was secretary; or how a gathering of Mumbai's leading industrialists (include any name you want, from Ambanis to Wadias to the Tatas) listened to him in awe as he delivered a sermon on the latest Marketing funda. Did he not tell me, he's an ex-student of IIM, Ahmedabad. He did. Ya.

If you've any problem, Mr Sinha is more than eager to solve it. That he would end up aggravating the problem is a different story. But Mr Sinha would not shy away from taking a chance to offer his ideas. He's now invited me to his home. He was very happy when I generously offered him a chance to solve one of my problems in the room.

Mr Sinha will be here for some more days. So far, from the day he has been in Mumbai in this dormitary, none of his family members has called on him. Neither his wife, nor his son.

"You see, it's a busy world, beta!" Mr Sinha said last evening when I opened the subject. "Nobody listens to me at my home. Nobody heard me ever. Never did my father, or my family," he said with a smile that looked superficial.

Mr Sinha was sad, as he tried to control his tears. His new story had just begun in the process. And I was there giving an ear to him.