It was in the middle of May, an hour before full noon. The peltophorums in their yellow blossoms shining even more brightly in the gaze of the hot sun. The road was deserted by birds, animals and humans alike. Even plants had abandoned the arid pebbled soil. Life was baked in the heat, the rivers had run their tears dry. But on that sole tree, the yellow buds stood smiling like the eyes of a lone ranger.
The tree was not the only living thing on the dusty road. Standing in the shade of the tree was a man. A man in a checked shirt with half sleeves buttoned upto the neck, khaki pants and strapped 'sandals' and an old steel HMT watch on his wrist. His thick-rimmed spectacles registered a scholastic yet street-smart look on his face - one that had nothing striking about it and would easily merge in the sea of people unobtrusively. The average middle-class Indian male can't really boast of tallness and he was loyal to this background. Neither portly nor thin, neither rich nor poor, neither handsome nor ugly, he was just average - the balance that nature struck against which comparisons could be made. He was waiting for someone. He had nothing in his hand. But the look on his face seemed like he had possessed something invaluable. His patience was wearing out.
The tall man walked hurriedly. A pace in stark contrast to the slow lazy rural life of the small village or a large hamlet, whatever you may call it. He was a tall wiry man who looked like he could boast of aristocratic birth. But aristocrats never passed this way, unless they were driving towards their farmhouses.
The day still belonged to the owner of the kirana and the ration shop. Time was rationed. Work only allowed between 9:00 am - 5:00 pm and banks would close at 12:00 noon. Food was rationed. Telephones, electricity, cars, televisions, passport sized photographs were rationed. Money was rationed. Socialism and capitalism were also rationed in the name of a 'mixed economic policy', a connotation only understood by the connoisseurs who rationed the name. India had just crossed the threshold of a free market. Manmohan Singh had just opened the doors to a new economic future and the buzz was loud and expectant. The new waters however would take a long time to percolate to rural India.
An old woman, disfigured by her hump, walked past them, balancing herself on her stick. A few minutes later, a much younger woman belonging to the tribes that lived in the outskirts of the village passed them. The tall man stared at her for a moment and walked on. He recognized her from her adornments, her tattoos, her worn out garment that wrapped her lower body and sashayed over her breasts onto her left shoulder and finally the raw clay pots hanging on her waist and over her head filled with water drawn from the shallow well outside the village. Her origins disallowed her from entering the village temple, drawing water from the village well, learning at the village school, living in the village, marrying a village local, owning brass pots and distancing her from any liberty that the villager was allowed. She wouldn't be older than sixteen, he surmised. Married with one child, he thought grimly. Drunk husband, listless mother-in-law, aloof parents, malnourished child. Just one look at her bony structure covered by skin and he knew her history, present and fate. He walked on.
The local train had left him on the village platform twenty minutes ago. After walking on the tarred road for five minutes, he took a turn to the right on this path that was but a mere excuse for a road. It would take another ten minutes for him to reach his destination, but he didn't mind. On days that he was lucky, a truck going towards the village to collect grains or the farmer's bullock cart returning from the town market would offer him a ride. Today wasn't one of those days, yet he didn't mind. He had been coming here for two months short of nine years now. A journey he detested initially but one that grew on him since. He was a man on a mission.
A few yards past the turn, he met Manoj Sutar, the shorter unobtrusive man and the owner of the only telephone booth in the village. A carpenter by genetics and geopolitics, Manoj ran away from home after failing his SSC for the third time and came back eight years later from Pune claiming to have made money as a middleman in the farmer's market. With the government issuing licenses for telephones more freely now, he bribed his way and cut through the red tape and brought the village's first telephone home. But times had changed since he came. The tall man had brought with him slow surreptitious but definite winds of change. Manoj instantly understood what the stranger was doing and he decided to become his right hand. The tall man was a leftie.
Ten years ago, Ranjeet was a different man. Born to a family of rich money-lenders who moved from their ancestral village to become richer as successful jewellers in erstwhile Bombay forty years ago, his childhood and adolescence were spent in the innocent ignorance of life outside fortress of his home. Fussed over by servants, pampered by his folks, his life seemed like one that dreams were made of. The joint household chattered in many voices, old and young. The maharaj of the kitchen was kept busy all day long supervising the kitchen staff catering to the minutest likes and dislikes of all the 22 members of the 4 generations of the family. The aromas of food cooked in rich desi ghee from the kitchen wafted at regular intervals throughout the huge checkered-floored hall that often hosted a banquet for family and friends.
Though the mansion was beautiful from the outside, bedecked in white walls with green plaques of window frames, the insides were a gaudy display of the moneyed history of the family. The walls were an off-white that off-set the bright colors on display. From the large fountain mounted on a white marble base in the lawn to the fushcia pink velvet cushions to the leonine large crystal-studded chandelier that hung from the center of the ceiling, the interior designer had left no stone unturned in bringing the richest fabrics, the rarest sandalwood sculptures, the long oblong wooden rosewood table and other intricately carved rosewood furniture to pay obeisance to the owner's wealth. In the marbled banquet hall, long maroon velvet curtains tied in pastel knotted straps hung from the tall walls over the french-styled windows that opened itself into the large lush green manicured lawn and let in a cool breeze through the day.
Behind the large banquet hall, was a smaller room furnished with exquisite rugs from Afghanistan and Persia gifted by Arab merchants as a token for the beautiful jewels that pleased their wives on their return after months. The room was triangular and lined by diwans adorned with cushions and it was here that the family members gathered for an idle chat, a discussion, an argument or an announcement. It was in this room that marriages were fixed, business deals were clinched, bureaucrats loosened their red tapes, born babies were named and dead bodies were paid their last respects and taken away for their funeral.
The first floor belonged to the eldest and youngest members. The youngest being Ranjeet, his younger brother and sister and five cousins while the oldest being his great-grandparents who had originally left the village and come to the city forty years ago. In less than fifteen years, Ranjeet's great-grandfather, an astute merchant, had trebled his fortune and moved with his family into this sprawling mansion that was earlier owned by the Maharaj of Chumbhad. In the wake of the amalgamation of the princely states with the nation, the king had decided to retain this humble bungalow along with his palace in Rajasthan. But in a few years, with just a mere modest stately income, in a decision that placed pragmatism over pride, he decided to part with the city home and offered it to Ranjeet's great-grandfather at a price far lower than market expectations. Not one to miss out on a great opportunity, the old man saw profit in this barter and borrowed loans to make up for the full purchase.
When he moved into the two storeyed mansion with his parents, wife, three sons, two daughters, Ranjeet's great-grandfather initially planned on selling the house in ten years and buying plush apartments throughout the city as investments for his children. But as the years went by, the goddess of wealth was pleased with his devotion and ensured a steady flow of currency into the household. Indian women have always been taken up by the shimmer of the yellow metal; but the old man brought in highly skilled workers from the far-off villages and set up a workshop that churned out the most beautifully carved ornaments and accurately cut diamonds and rubies and sapphires and all other gemstones. Soon the entrepreneur set out for foreign lands in search of new buyers and returned each time with new ideas, new designs, new partners, new ventures and of course new customers.
The second floor with 5 bedrooms was meant for each of the entrepreneur's children. The third floor was built as an addition just before Ranjeet's parents were to get married. They shared this floor with Ranjeet's two uncles and their wives. But with both the uncles moving abroad to take care of the family's flourishing overseas business and his parents moving into his great-grandparents' room after their deaths, the top floor was exclusively gifted to Ranjeet.
The car stereos blared Material Girl. The walls set ablaze with posters of semi-nude models torn from stealthily stolen issues of the "phoren" magazines. The bike was a Yamaha waiting to for its godmother to turn it into a Harley. The bedroom was a suite with an in-built gym, a round bed surrounded by sheer lacy veneers, a color television, an air-conditioner, two telephones one of which was an intercom and a refrigerator stacked with non-alcoholic drinks.
He lived a life distinct from that of his family. Where they were the devout religious Hindu businessmen who worshipped Lakshmi in the early hours of the morning before they set out for the day, he would return just a few hours before the morning puja after a night of frenzied clubbing, biking and racing down the Queen's necklace with his adrenaline-fueled friends. His mornings would begun after the dabbawalas would return the lunch tiffin boxes from the jewellery store. Agnostic, he rebelled against the rituals observed by the elder generations and instead would begin his day pumping iron in the gym that he insisted on being built next to his room. He tried unsuccessfully to maintain his macho image by growing his hair - an attempt chopped off by a long tirade by his father accompanied by a threat to disown him. After a quick lunch, and the mandatory fussing over his mother and hello to his grandparents (who obviously shook their heads each time he left), he would race on his Yamaha to meet his friends - a bratpack. College was a place he'd visit on days he couldn't sleep or just to fulfill the formality of taking the necessary exams to pass. He took to the Sciences a sign of rebellion against the family tradition that was steeped in commerce. He shifted to the Arts, inspired by the intellectual freedom they offered, but soon realized that his aptitude lay elsewhere. His only problem was - he couldn't figure where elsewhere was.
The only display of loyalty towards his family traditions was his reluctance to succumb to alcohol and tobacco. He was a teetotaller - a sign of rebellion against his peers. He belonged nowhere. He was isolated even in a crowd. He was a loner.
Ranjeet wasn't exactly oblivious to the disparity that existed in his world. As a child he often wondered why the househelp and the washerwoman's children would busy themselved in cleaning the crevices carved in wood while he would be pushed off to pursue higher learning. His great-grandfather would often narrate stories and anecdotes from his life in the village and it was with this man that Ranjeet forged a very close bond. Sitting on his lap, the child would sternly question his grandfather why he never went back to the village and upgraded the school set under the shade of the banyan tree. Why, when he let his daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters study, didn't he wield his power in the village to insist that all girls should go to school as well. (In his playful mind though, Ranjeet thought of it why should only boys be made to go through the torture of attending school). When he could provide luscious aamras squeezed out from the pulpiest of the costly haapus mangoes all through summer for the immediate as well as the extended family, why couldn't he build a second well for the toilet-cleaners and washermen folk? When he donated thousands towards charity, why didn't he scold the temple priest for being partisan towards some and thereby take away his monthly allowance?
Perhaps this dichotomy disillusioned the young lad. It was probably the reason why he shunned what his elders pursued. The hearty consumption of elaborate feasts during parties by his family and friends contrasted starkly against the leftovers left for the kitchen folk. The community's ahimsa module of living and thereby contempt for foods obtained by killing animals was falsified by their ventures into leather goods. He had inherited the old entrepreneur's astute eye for detail and this made him go against his own blood. As he grew older, Ranjeet became more aware of the economic and social stratification of his society, but instead of studying ways of dealing with it, he chose to turn a blind eye and live a life of his own ideals and rules. That is, until he met Shrikant...... and Anjali.
"Allas klaar?" Ranjeet asked Manoj with a smile, his countenance betraying the palpitations his heart tossed rapidly. With a wide grin befitting the urchin who had managed a grab at a wedding feast, Manoj dabbed his eyes and embraced the taller man in a bear-hug, "Saheb, thank you." A yellow bud fell on Ranjeet's crew-cut.
Shrikant was the life of the party. Throughout his life. Jocund, garrulous bordering on irreverent at times, he was the lad the other boys wanted to be or atleast be with, the guy who crushed girls by his demeanor, the object of affection of the blushing lassies around. The handsome boy dressed in khadi kurtas over his blue denims was an ace debater, excelled in extempore was a sportstar and was superb in every effort except his brush with art. But that didn't stop him from spelling out his mind in graffiti, painting the town red with his girlfriend or crafting new ideas for his team.
His father was a doctor, Dr Manohar Kulkarni, a physician who left a budding practice to embrace a new wave of communism - that took him to remote villages. Impassioned by his ideology, he left his wife and two children to the mercy of his in-laws and set off on a journey that would make him a nomad. Two years later, a letter arrived at their doorstep informing them of his death due to delayed treatment for malaria. Six months later, his inconsolable best friend told them he had been lynched by a mob that misunderstood his physical examination of a young woman. Another year later, a fellow communist who now renounced the ideology claimed that he had been killed by the police. Five years later, someone else re-opened old wounds by stating that the doctor was very much alive and was now a Naxal leader. No one knew the truth. No one wanted to know the truth anymore.
Shrikant's mother, Ahilya was a rebel. In a family that got their daughters married when they turned sixteen, she put her foot down and insisted that she be allowed to complete her graduation. Much to her mother's chagrin, Ahilya's father saw sense in her argument and agreed to her demand on the condition that she would get married immediately after her graduation to a boy of their choice. She went to the best college in Indore, studied English Literature and passed with honors. In her final year, during a trip to Bombay, she tripped down a long flight of stairs and landed in the hospital to get her left leg plastered. The intern on-call was the jovial sorts and engaged her in conversation while he distracted the limb and plastered it in a cast. She came to know his name, that he was from Indore, was related to her family's physician and would be starting his practice once he passed. Something tugged at her heart and there was something about the her that made him unable to take his eyes off her. Before long, the family physician played the apparent match-maker and Shrikant was born a year later.
The initial years were sheer bliss. Lust soon was accompanied by a sweet love that seemed like it would sustain a long time of togetherness. But seven years into their wedding, the seven-year itch had bitten their happy marriage. Ahilya was distraught when her husband abandoned her and children. She had pleaded with him to take them along with him or atleast just her, but he refused the company. He begged her to stay back in the city and ensure a good education for the children from the savings he had kept. He was adamant in leaving but was insistent on them staying back. "How am I to take care of the children without you?" He said without a trace of emotion, "Your father didn't educate you for you to ask this question. You aren't illiterate. You aren't a village girl. You have never been poor and if you're sensible and put your talents to use, you won't be poor in future too. Now if you don't stop me, you will be doing yourself and me a great favor."
Ahilya could have never foreseen this day. The ground beneath her feet melted into quicksand and she had a sinking feeling that she would be able to stay afloat only with her efforts. The children were sleeping soundly unaware of the tragedy that had struck their family. In the wee hours of the dawn, Manohar left carrying along a single suitcase filled with a couple of clothes, his stethoscope, torch, hammer and a family photograph taken in happier times. Ahilya sat on the sofa in shock, she didn't hear her children's voices when they woke up and came to senses only two days later in the hospital where she was being treated for acute psychological trauma.
But true to her name, Ahilya turned herself into stone. She resolved not to let the absence of their father affect their children and begun taking up small jobs here and there. It was a chance encounter with an old school teacher that led her back to her alma mater, this time as the English teacher for the higher classes. In no time, she endeared herself to teachers and students alike and ten years later she became the youngest woman to head the school. Rumors of Manohar's appearance and disappearance floated around, but she decided not to believe any of them and consider him alive until proven otherwise. Her love for him had only increased and she longed to catch a glimpse of that charming doctor who stole her heart years ago. Her love for him ensured that the children would always love their missing father who was berated at every chance by both grandmothers. She earned enough to keep her children's dreams alive and keep the family entertained. Manohar's words still stung her, but she could now sense his confidence in his wife that she would manage well. She understood him better now. She was more assured of his love for her now, more than ever.
Manohar's charismatic persona had rubbed on Shrikant. Exuberant by nature, the son was the leader among the children, the arbiter in their childish fights, the brain behind their pranks, the voice behind their protests. No matter how many times he angered the neighbors with his playfulness, his impish grin mouthing white lies would save the day for him. And when that failed to do the trick, his mother's goodness assured the victims that the culprit would be duly punished - of course, to this day, Ahilya has never laid a finger on her children. An ace in everything he took up, Shrikant showed his father's brilliance throughout his schooling and everyone anticipated that he would continue with his father's healing touch. Though he despised his father's decision to leave them, Shrikant did not let that cloud his judgment of the man who was his father and before long, he was doing his internship at the same hospital where twenty four years ago his parents first met.
During the time he studied medicine at the Government Hospital, Shrikant had come across patients from the lowest strata of society, living in far-flung villages that were cut-off from modernization. He began to understand the meaning of abandonment when he met the lepers disfigured by their illness but disheartened by their families. His own pain lessened and he found solace in listening to the histories of the illnesses that struck like calamities in impoverished families. He began to see how everything he read in the books did not translate into reality. He began to read between the lines and see what was written in invisible ink. The tuberculosis bacillus did not just eat into the lungs, but ate into the livelihood of the family. Pot bellied children did not know how to eat because they never had enough to know that. The character of a person's stool revealed a lot about him - if loose, it was probably infection that came from eating the roadside vada pav, and if the stool was hard, it probably was because of gorging on too many buttered foods from high-end hotels.
His internship took him for two months to Sukhegaon, two hours drive north to Bombay on the road to Nashik. These two months were the turning point in his life. They brought him closer to his father than he would have ever been. He began to see his father in a new light. On the very first day of his posting, a woman died because of severe bleeding that refused to stop after her child was born. In the agony of his mother's death, the tiny child cried to his own death. None of the management measures that he had studied came to his rescue. The primary health centre was exhausted of its sterilized gauze even before the child was born. Shrikant kept his fist in the woman's vagina and pushed it into her womb in an effort to stem the continuous gush. There were no catheters that he could fill and insert into her uterus, neither were there any medications he could inject to ebb the flow. Shrikant felt his own eyes burn with tears as he saw life slipping away and taking life away with it too.
The center was headed was a senior doctor who was always busy in some district level health care meeting leaving Shrikant and his fellow Atul to take charge. In the absence of doctors, something that happened alarmingly at regular intervals, it was manned by three nurses who attended the clinic in eight-hourly rotations, a pharmacist and two men who were there as health workers. The young doctors from the city hospital were posted at the village twice a year for two months. However, in most complicated cases, these freshly graduated doctors were inept in handling them and that further resulted in more complications that needed urgent referrals. There was a dilapidated jeep provided to the center to transport patients to the nearest hospital, but countless occasions, the patient lost his gear before the jeep could rev up its engine. The center had gained infamy and a notorious reputation for being a death house and the villagers preferred the vaid's herbs and fakir's incantations to the science of modern medicine.
The nurses were the surrogate doctors, surrogate mid-wives, surrogate counselors and surrogate mothers to the young doctors posted there. The health workers came and went at times as pleased them under the pretext of doing field work. The pharmacist was a pathological specimen by himself. The center received medications thrice a year and after pocketing essential medicines for his family and for those in connivance with him, the stocks would last less than a month. So in the remaining months, the pharmacist would resort to his own tantrums. The doctor, the real or surrogate, would issue a prescription to the patient and the pharmacist would turn a blind eye in defiance and dispense medicine according to what he deemed fit. When questioned by the doctors, he would cheekily reply, "Saheb this will keep a steady inflow of patients into the center. We need to maintain a minimum number in the register for the records."
The senior doctor was a missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. Although he was supposed to be the guide to the younger doctors and supervise them in the physical examinations of the patients and prescriptions of medicines and procedures, he was a rarity at the center. While he was supposed to stay at the center and be available to the patients at all hours, he preferred the comforts of home that was an hour away by his rusty Bajaj scooter. Two-day meetings with the zonal head medical officer every week to report the cases of infectious diseases, psychiatric illnesses in another week, births and immunizations in the third week and deaths in the fourth week and two more days in each week given to district level meetings kept him away from the center for half the month. A day every week was devoted to supervision of the anganwadi workers and this left Saturdays for the center. But being the dedicated government servant, he would take a half day off work to devote to his home ministry. Sunday obviously meant he was not to be disturbed.
Shrikant began to understand why his father decided to give up a life of luxuries and adopt a new, rustic, rougher but more fulfiling lifestyle. He was beginning to feel motivation stirring in him to venture out and 'do something'. But what this something, he would have to figure out. Soon.
"Saheb, what if someone opposes our plan?" a line of worry crossed Manoj's brow. Ranjeet looked straight ahead, "Anjali has arranged for that to be taken care of".