To hell and back

Around 11am Ramesh was called in the cabin of manager Srivastav ji. Whenever this happens most people become alert wondering about reason of the meeting. It could be bad sales, complains about product or sometimes even a new order. Bad sales could mean delay in salary or even pay cut. Product complains means someone has to be sent to the factory to inform them, which is a horrible job. There no one listens to you and you come back with message that ‘message has been conveyed’. Ramesh emerged after 15 min with the hint of a smile. Everyone reacted to that and wanted a piece of good news.

“A new company in Shahjahanpur has decided to purchase 120 chairs and 20 tables from us.”

A wave of happiness spread among all 11 people. Lata gave a look to Ramesh and a thumb up. She asked quietly when do you leave. He showed his stop palm meaning, wait, will tell. Just then the phone rang. Peon Tripathi picked it, ”Ramesh ji, for you”.

Yes! Who is that? I see… After so long. Where are you? Hmm… I don’t think it will be possible. I need to be home by 6.30 after office. Mother is old and unwell. I… frankly it’s very difficult… I know that big hut. I have also heard about Lala ji… this is embarrassing… okay… so today bus depot 8pm.

When he placed the receiver down Ramesh was visibly tense and sweaty. He headed to the washroom. After he shut the door he clutched his head and waited for a bit, then rested his head on side wall. My god! How the hell did he appear again?

He knew Satish from college days. He was a very tricky person. Not violent but almost dangerous. Because of this Ramesh barely spoke to him. He would borrow money from anyone and not return it. Then threaten the person. Perhaps he was looking for short cuts to success. Satish also had tried his luck in getting friendly with Ramesh’s sister Pushpa. He borrowed a cycle once and returned it after 3 days…

After Ramesh left the office, he started walking in opposite direction. Lata asked,  “what has happened, why aren’t you going home?”

“I have to meet someone at bus stop at 8.”

“8! Who will inform you mother. She will be so worried!”

“I know. But can’t help. It’s an old friend.”

“I can take a detour and inform them if you want.”

“Can you do that? I hope it doesn’t put you in trouble in your own house?”

They parted. Both wore extremely worried look.

He purposely walked slowly. Bus stop was hardly 15 min away. But at this time that area starts getting deserted. Bus stop appeared. A bus was idling. Conductor was waving people to get in fast. He reached the place. The bus drove off, leaving a translucent mountain of dust. He noticed the hazy light of cigarette shop through it. Waving his hand in front of this face he reached the shop. Half an hour to go! He remembered he had refused a smoke earlier in the day, but now it is required for two reasons, one is to wait for a person who he hates and second to kill the killing tension.

“Four square small”. How expensive these are! But there are people who carry packets of them. He lit it with the end of a hanging rope, dragged once, looked around; country liquor bar came in his vision. He walked up, looked inside casually through the torn curtain. How in the hell people drink the stuff which smells so foul! He looked at his watch. Still 10 min to go. He walked back to cigarette shop and asked the man, “does the last Saharanpur bus come in time.” Man started with, ‘hmm’ and was getting into the mood of starting a chapter to explain it. Ramesh walked away.

He saw approaching lights of a bus. Kids selling snacks got active with their wares. He came to know the bus goes back after 20 min. So he realized that would be the maximum time he will have to tolerate Satish. But it was already so late. He thought he will stand and talk near this shop only. In case he plays foul; people can see. Bus stopped. Soon Satish emerged. He recognized him after so many years. He had to, because all others looked simple people. He got off with a flourish. Panned his look and found Ramesh. He walked briskly to him, “come” and moved as briskly to the bar. He walked in smoothly, as though he is a regular. Ramesh thought about the idea he just had about the bar. Satish pulled him inside by the hand and took an empty table, got it cleaned and ordered, “two ilaichi with soda.” I am not having”, Ramesh protested sharply. “don’t worry. I am there na. I will need it for my return journey. One limca”. He told waiter. After his first sip he relaxed. Ramesh asked him, what did he want. “Wait”. He said. After cold drink arrived and waiter left, he leaned forward and said, “I need a packet to be delivered to Lala ji. The one who lives in the big hut at the end of Teli lane.”

“Packet? What’s in the packet?” Ramesh had to be very alert. He knew he could get entangled in some very undesirable situations.

“Nothing big. My company owes him some chemical material for a process. I will pick up the product myself when it is ready.” He opened his brief-case and took out a palm size packet wrapped seriously in brown paper, then packaging tape. Few rubber bands also crisscrossed the packet.

“Looks like wad of money to me.” Ramesh said.

“If it was money I wouldn’t give it to anyone to deliver.”

He gulped his drinks and Ramesh emptied Limca. Satish paid at the counter and outside they parted. Ramesh bought some peanuts for his walk home. Soon bus reversed and started its journey.

In a while, he decided it was too late to deliver the packet to Lalaji at this time, although it was on the way. He should be going home soon. He was eating peanuts and thinking, what to do. Should he give it now or tomorrow? Then he realized crookedness of Satish. No, I wouldn’t like to take this damn packet home. Mom will ask hundred questions and hearing Satish’s name she will freak out. It’s already late, so might as well…

He started towards the hut. Outside a long haired man sat quietly. He wore a shirt that was perhaps a bed-sheet earlier. It had huge checks. He was sitting on a bound heap of garbage. There were more such heaps all around. Hesitantly Ramesh reached, stopped and approached him. Man became alert. He looked at him with questioning eyes.

“Lala ji? Have to meet Lala ji. Is he in?”

“You want to meet him? No body meets him just like that. What do you want?”

“I don’t want anything. Satish has given a parcel for him.”

“Who Satish?”

“From Saharanpur. I met him at the bus stop.”

“Wait here.” Man got up from the garbage heap. He himself seemed garbage personified. He had a heavy limp. Ramesh thought he was like Shakuni Mama. Oh god, so he too is crooked! Man parted the layers of heavy gunny bag curtain and entered. Ramesh could see little of inside the hut as there was a bright bulb. But things were kept systematically, not like outside. Then the curtain fell. Ramesh finished packet of peanuts and tossed it aside, contribution to garbage, he thought.

Soon the limping man emerged, “do you have any message or any other thing?”

“No. Nothing.”

“You can go. He will get in touch with him.”

“I want emphasize that I have nothing to do with Satish. I just helped him to deliver this parcel.”

He reached home to two desperately worried women. His mother without asking any question served him food. Pushpa got a glass of water. After washing up he sat down. “Don’t ask anything. We will talk tomorrow.”

In the morning he did not give anyone a chance to talk and cycled quickly to the office. He was bit early. Staff started coming in. Soon all were inside. Srivastav ji also entered and sat in his cabin. Peon gave him a glass of water and newspaper. He received a call on his personal number. His face changed. He pointed to Lata to come in with her assistant. As she went in, he asked her to sit. She said it was fine. He disconnected the phone and said urgently, “pick-up your shooting equipment and crew. There has been a blast nearby. In fact in Teli lane. Go and get as much footage as possible from all angles… I mean you know all that. Our news agency has called. They heard about it from their own sources. We can get a lot of benefits if we send them exciting footage.”

“Yes sir of course.” And she came out of the cabin. Ramesh hinted, “What happened?” She showed him the stop sign as though she was in a tearing hurry. She picked up all the equipment and left.

Now the part below here has been ‘reproduced’ painstakingly from my memory. I just did not feel like writing all this all over again. But somehow I dragged myself to it. Moreover there was someone who really wanted to see how it ends and that made the reason strong enough to take it to its logical end.

In a minute Srivastav ji came out and said, “Lata has gone out urgently to shoot a story in Teli lane. There was big blast there.” Ramesh’s jaw dropped and heart sank down to the depth of hell, “Oh my god!” Everyone else wondered, how come a blast in this sleepy town! Who is so important or rich to be blown up? From this insignificant area if anything would appear on TV was, only when Neelkamal Ad Company sends their video report. This is the only company that does it.

At the blast site the big hut had been completely blown into tiny bits. Both the persons had died. Body of Lala ji was in shambles and man with bed-sheet shirt was lying up aide down. Ambulance staff was preparing to take them away. A police party was working, clicking pictures of various suspicious articles. Officer asked them to not come closer or enter right inside the hut, in case there is another charge. Gradually crowd from locality collected. They started questioning.

“Where do you stay? Did you hear the blast?”

“I stay at the other end of the lane. I heard a big sound, but did not know what it was. I thought some truck might have dumped coal in the iron factory. They keep doing that.”

Chai wala appeared from the close-by stall and started offering tea to cops. Sirens were heard and police officer dispersed everybody away. A senior officer was expected from the head quarter. Police jeep stopped near the crowd. Someone shouted everyone to get back. Cops looked at the destruction and perhaps made mental notes.

They might have got a lead on the gangs operating from another state and Lala ji was on their radar as assembler of crude bombs. Soon all the action got over. All inquiries by cops ended. Lata was shooting all this continuously. She went on the roof of opposite house and panned the camera across entire area to get all the details. In the end of the shot camera caught a crumpled paper that Ramesh had chucked, before he spoke to the man outside the hut.

After lunch Srivastav ji wanted to view entire footage before sending it off to agency. They were making a copy to send. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the monitor. As soon as Ramesh saw the peanut packet, he was shocked and ran to the washroom. Lata was surprised at his sudden action. But she kept her mind on work.

Ramesh shut the door and puked instantly. He was feeling shattered. What now! These people are sleuths. They will find everything. They will pick that paper and figure from where it came. At 9pm very few shops are open. That will lead them to bus depot. The cigarette shop will identify him… God! Oh my god! Nothing is left for him to look forward to. Life with Lata, his mother and sister! When they will know that he delivered that bomb to the big hut!

Office door opened and two police men waked in. They had seen Lata shooting the blast location. They watched some of it and then said, “we will need a copy of this right now. It has to be sent to higher ups. Srivastav ji said, “It is still being done. I will bring it myself to police station.” Ramesh got extremely nervous knowing cops had entered the office. He stayed in the washroom holding the fittings to avoid collapsing. After cops left, he came out and tried to behave as normal as he could. Lata instantly knew there was something drastically wrong with Ramesh. After the copy completed Srivastav ji left to deliver it. Lata loaded another tape to make a copy for agency. While leaving Srivastav ji announced, he will be going home after this. It is quite late. And everyone should come tomorrow on time.

Lata told Ramesh, “You carry on home. I will take some time. Last night also you reached late.” He agreed, picked up his things but looked back at her from the door… he felt this might be the last time he is looking at her.

Work at office finished an hour later. After the copy was completed Lata called agency and walked out. Peon shut the door from inside. He would stay there today.

Ramesh kept usual light hearted conversations on with two women. They ate in time. Spoke little about the blast. He made it sound unimportant. So many bigger blasts happen all over. You forgot about Mumbai? What is this; nothing, in front of Mumbai.

Pan wala saw Ramesh walking to the office. But he felt there is something different about him today and didn’t call out to him. He pushed the door and entered. Around 10.30 everyone was there. Srivastav ji came out of the cabin and addressed everyone. “Late last night cops have arrested the real culprit. Their links are with someone on the border of Nepal. One man called Satish died of a crude bomb blast in Saharanpur.” Oh! Saharanpur? Thank God! Did Ramesh suddenly step on a cloud?

“Ramesh you are going to Shahjahanpur to execute that furniture order. You leave tomorrow by 9am bus, return same day. Here are your tickets. Lata you have to interview SP at the police station tomorrow at 11am.” He went back in the cabin.

Bus to Shahjahanpur was to leave in 5 min.

Ramesh has taken his window seat.

Lata is happily chatting with him.

In Teli gali the blast site had been cleared. Someone is sweeping the area. An insignificant crumpled paper was seen getting swept with other rubbish.

In original version Ramesh just sits in the bus; feeling very relieved, and a faint smile appears on his face.

Reason to smile

Ramesh is a simple, hard-working youth. He is a Marketing & Accounts Clerk in Neelkamal Ad Co, Rampur. He makes very little money, just enough to support himself and two more, the old and frail mother and a young sister. He wants to save enough for his sister Pushpa’s wedding. Three of them live in a simple home, and possess old and rusty things. They cook simple food and lead a very basic life. Only kind of expensive articles with the family are two bicycles.

Sick! Isn’t it? So boring. But I did try to add some spice in my language and tried to make the family’s financial situation more tragic. When people are younger and their entire life is ahead of them, that’s the time money should not fall short, for boys and perhaps more so for girls. Everyone young girl wants to dress up and look nice, go out once in a while, perhaps see a movie, have an outing with friends etc. But Ramesh couldn’t afford to indulge at all:

Panwallah: saab finally today you want to spend one rupee on smoke?

Ramesh: Hmm I thought I may be getting some overtime in the office, so might as well relax a little.

Panwallah: very good idea. I know you do scrounge for the sake of didi’s marriage.  But sometime you should relax. How can one cigarette in two weeks harm your savings?

I have added a suspense angle in the story, when Ramesh is waiting for his worst friend at a bus stop at night. It was 8.15pm. Ramesh is always home by 6.30 and by 8 he is through with his dinner and sleeps off by 9.30, reading a book. But his unannounced delay had put his family in a deep state of worry:

“Subhash placed his briefcase on the table and looked around, then a second later he opened it. He withdrew a fat brown paper packet, its contents held toghether with two rubber bands. Ramesh could guess its contents only as a lot of papers. A glass of country liquor some Pakoras had arrived. He had a swig and offered him the Pakoras right into his nose. Ramesh found it quite aggressive, he picked one any ways. Subhash said, I want you to deliver this to Lalaji, of that big hut at the end of Teli lane. Ramesh was apprehensive. He hates Subhash and also had not heard good things about Lala.”

I hope I am able to really complete “Reason to smile”. Not that it’s a great story; but only that I started writing it in a very strange way. I had no plot in my mind, no characters and no idea about its genre, comedy, tragedy, love story or suspense… I just started punching the key board:

“Ramesh was walking to his office.”

Ok. Now what?

“He seemed a bit tense today. He was walking a bit more briskly than he usually did. He did not stop at the ‘paan wala’ and not even waved at him in usual daily namaskar Mishraji.”

Well it seems that Ramesh will be the lead character and he is tense right now. So, situations have to be created in the past that have made him tense in the present. Also the situations have to be good enough for him to ‘not’ turn towards his friends and wave at them. And more importantly they have to be strong enough to be included in the story. I was not in a mood of adding villains or fights with his family. So I decided to add that he received a phone call in the office and he went into his shell after that. I had no idea what the phone conversation was going to be:

“Phone rings. Peon picks it and points to Ramesh, “You have a call.” Lata and Ramesh both are confused. Who could be calling him on office number? Hesitating, he gets up and takes the receiver. Hello. His face distorts. He looks at heaven, stunned. He only listens. Then a yes, hmm, very difficult, it’s too far. I don’t even have a cycle today. Sweat appears on his forehead. Finally he says ok and hangs up.

“Who was that”, Lata asks.

“An old college friend”, he says.

“College friend, but then why are you so worried?”

I had introduced people in the office where Ramesh works. Lata was one of them. She and Ramesh are good friends, you know what I mean. Then I named the town the story is set in, Rampur. Now to match the small town Rampur, everything becomes small in size and status; office, business, people, their conversation, topics, salaries… but what doesn’t change are friendships and love, its intensity and spice that goes with it. Ramesh and Lata have been seeing each other without anyone seeing them, seeing each other. They have to work real hard to not bump into any familiar person around them. In a small town it is a near impossible task. But no one can fight what a young heart demands. A telephonic conversation between them is here as I end this last part of ‘Tragedy…’ with this:

Lata on phone, “is our evening plan still there?”

“Yes, 6.30, Mahatma Gandhi park.” Ramesh has called her from a public phone.

“Umm, but it is too bright at 6.30pm.”

“7.30 then?”

“Better. You know how this town is. Last Sunday we nearly bumped into the office peon in the park. It is not Bombay, you know.”

“Huh, as though you have been there. Listen should we try to take a bus a little out of town today?

“It will be too late to return.”

“That is true, it will be late. We could find the last bus time and go next time.”

“We can plan that when we meet now. See you then. By the way, are you wearing the shirt I gave you?’

“Yes, I am and are you wearing that what I gave you?”

“Shut up.”

Reason to smile? Hardly; but for a small town like this, may be.