Read a tale of endurance, will & a daring fight against Covid. Click here for "The Stalwarts" by Soni Shalini.
Read a tale of endurance, will & a daring fight against Covid. Click here for "The Stalwarts" by Soni Shalini.

Molly Chatterjee



Molly Chatterjee




52 mins

Acres and acres of a harvest of Golden wheat stood ready to be cut. The next few days, until the crop was cut, were crucial for Raghu. He intended to be very careful in his vigil. On moonlit nights he spread his cot in the midst of his fields. On his cool bed in the midst of the fields with the cool soft breeze blowing, nothing could be nearer to heaven. Especially, when contrasted with the days that had become blazing hot in central India, though it was only end of March. He kept an alert eye to watch out for animals and other human beings from destroying the fruits of his labour. In the middle of his field there was a wooden structure, it stood on four wooden poles, a wooden plank about 10 feet from the ground inserted among the poles sort of made half storey, the roof was of hay and he had further splashed mud on it. Raghu would slide up on the half storey after climbing a ladder, it was his watchtower during the day and it kept him as cool as possible.

The road that ran near his fields was a state highway. Many vehicles, swanky cars, trucks, SUVs sped past him. The number of vehicles passing has increased as the road had become better. A few years ago the road was potholed and very few vehicles passed by, mostly government jeeps, state transport buses and an occasional truck. Now, as part of the government initiative, Prime Minister’s Rural Road Scheme, all roads were nicely metalled, gleaming black. This road was shown on Google maps as one of the shortest ways from Bhopal to Gwalior. That was probably the reason for the gradual increase in traffic in this hinterland. More and more people were traveling by their own vehicles now.

Many more years ago, when Raghu was a kid, the arrival of any motor vehicle in their village Nazirabad created a sensation, all kids would follow the vehicle, and those that were able to touch the vehicle would consider themselves privileged. Nazirabad itself had some historical importance or so claimed its inhabitants. The wise old men of the village repeated stories heard from their forefathers how the British Army marching under Sir Hugh Rose, on its way to quell the rebellion at Jhansi, had camped here overnight. A Victorian silver cigar case was the proud possession of his family, a gift from the General himself, a token of gratitude for hosting him and his men. Some months later, the tragic Queen, Rani Laxmibai’s fleeing entourage escaping from British capture, had asked for refuge in the village. The fear of reprisals from the British being such, the request could not be acceded to. But for many months the villagers had secretly helped the party with food and essentials while they hid in the nearby forests.

Raghu had finished his lunch some time ago. He stuck to local food when in the village so either it was millet chapattis and spinach or some such leafy veggie or a pot-pourri of mixed grains for him in the afternoon. His aunt cooked the millet chapattis really well. He had some buttermilk as well and went back to his vigil. It was fearfully hot today; he hoped it would rain sometime soon. However, there was a slight breeze, and still not as hot and blazing as it would get as summer progressed. He must have dozed off a little, he could not find his shoes he was wearing someone else’s... though he had them on they did not quite fit him. He woke up with a jerk and realized he had been dreaming. He also realized the heat was not so oppressive any more, it had become overcast and a cool breeze was blowing. He got down from his perch and walked through his crops, he felt a few cool drops. That meant it was already raining somewhere in the hills beyond.

Only, there should be no hail storm as that would be a disaster. Only, if the John Deere fellow with the harvester would arrive now, he was supposed to have arrived three days ago. Though the company was American, the delivery man proclaimed himself every bit Indian; he far overshot the time period of his arrival. He was travelling from his centre somewhere in the North; Jallandhar if he remembered well and obviously had miscalculated the time to reach this place. It will not be an easy task to gather speed with a bulky machine on the busy highways. After two days of haggling with the call centre and the dealer, he was able to obtain the driver’s cell number. From what the driver described of his location, Raghu anticipated he should reach by the next morning. All farmers of the village jointly rented harvester combines in the harvest season. That was one of the few mechanizations their village could boast of.

His cell rang; his mother was on the line. She wanted to know where he was and whether he had had his lunch. Raghu’s mother, Irawati, spent most of her time with his younger brother and his family, more so after his father passed away two years ago. His brother, Aryan, was a Major in the Indian army and currently posted in Hyderabad. Irawati had gone from annoyance to bewilderment to exasperation to finally acceptance of the conduct of her firstborn. Now, she only ensured by calling him twice a day that he was safe. For the rest of Raghu’s affairs, she had left it to the care of the Almighty and her prayers. It was beyond her comprehension why he was toiling in the fields on a blazing hot day like this when they paid hired hands to do all the work. Her sons were city-bred, though they had spent a lot of time in their childhood at their ancestral farm. Both her boys were attached to their farm and regularly found time to visit it despite their busy lives; that is except that Raghu had now been firmly settled there for the past six months. All the more bewildering as Raghu, for all his eccentricities, was all for good life. Aryan and Raghu often got into argument when they were together as Raghu refused to walk to the market next block and Aryan the soldier that he was would be exasperated that someone as young and strong as Raghu was would actually consider it an effort. Raghu insisted on driving down as well as turning on the AC of the car, though the market was but 500 meters away. Raghu said he did not want to get sweaty and dusty for nothing.

 But then Irawati had stopped confronting Raghu and did not even ask him too many questions anymore. As well as she knew the answers she would get, evasions or vague to outrageous explanations. She found solace in her younger son and his family.

Aryan was what Raghu was not - disciplined, planned, and meticulous and devoted. He was any parents’ dream child. And coming eight years of struggle with Raghu, he was like a cool shade after blazing sun. He had always listened to his teachers, parents, and tutors, unlike Raghu. Not that Raghu was ever openly defiant, but somehow things never got done. While in his high school, Aryan had decided to become a soldier and that he did, diligently clearing all his exams. Whoever Aryan’s parents met, whether his teachers, friends, professors and seniors, all were praises for him. Aryan had justified all his parents’ efforts in his upbringing. He had kept his parents updated on all his plans, shared details of his life, inquired after their health and organized their medical check-ups from wherever he was. He also took his parents on vacations regularly, Raghu joining them many a time. Aryan was a consummate family man, devoted son, father, husband, brother and just as devoted a friend.

Eight years Raghu’s junior Aryan had married timely and wisely. Aryan’s wife Devyani, a law intern from his father’s firm was a perfectly sweet girl. She was the daughter Irawati never had. Devyani and Aryan had given Irawati two grandsons, now aged five and two, around whom most of her life revolved. All the disappointment of a parent and apprehension of an uncertain future for a child that Raghu had caused her were compensated by Aryan’s devoted care.

Speaking of being liked, not that Raghu was any less popular. Raghu had such an endearing quality about him that he seemed to draw all people to him. Though he had but visited only twice this place of the latest posting of Aryan, the neighbors and family friends all enquired when Raghu would be visiting again. His nephews almost daily had to be told the stories of what their uncle was doing and how he would be coming to meet them and what fun they would have together when he came. Whenever Raghu came home, his humour and light-heartedness drew all to him. The living room was full of friends and laughter and endless rounds of tea and snacks. Even in his last days, sick with a very weak heart and on heavy medication, her husband seemed to light up with Raghu’s presence. It seemed Raghu had the power to keep all moroseness and care at bay.

At school, his brother had studied regularly, kept his notes updated and secured good marks and rank. Years before that Irawati had to regularly borrow notebooks from Raghu’s friends to understand what was going on in Raghu’s class. And between her and hired tutors, it had been a herculean task to get Raghu to complete his notebooks and prepare him for his examinations. Raghu was as unconcerned about his approaching exams as if it was the neighbour’s boy and not him who had to write the exams the next day.

Raghu sailed through his school days sometimes smoothly and sometimes a trifle rough, but always happy and joyous whatever the results. He wasn’t terribly interested in anything but spent his time watching things around or playing. He sat at the garage of his friend’s father and saw the boys repairing buses and trucks or sat with the gardener for hours watching him at his job or played cricket with the boys in the neighbourhood and later with his brother. On other days he sat in his father’s Law office listening to his father’s and his colleagues’ conversation about law, work or politics, both of the country and of the office. His friends could die for him, his friends’ parents loved him as if he was their own and his kid brother adored him. One of his friend’s mother often told Irawati, how she liked having him around as if it was Little Krishna himself who was asking her to make more sweets for him. At Parent-teacher meetings, his teachers sighed and told his mother he was such a sweet boy and intelligent too, only if he would exert himself a little more. Raghu’s friends gladly helped him with his notes, taught him and studied with him. In the company of his friends, he managed to sail through his high school exams.

At home Raghu was regaling his brother with stories about some peculiarity or other one day it was some strange reptile that the gardener had dug up and he had kept in makeshift cage under the basket and was feeding it another day he would be recounting something like he was there when two people climbed in the well in the neighbors garden to clean it, how the ladder went in and in till almost the men became invisible below and could only be heard faintly. Either that or he was making his mother laugh by mimicking her friends or his teachers. If Irawati ever complained of the hard time she was having with Raghu, the boys’ father praised his younger son and smiled indulgently at the elder and went back to his law practice.

Whatever fear Raghu’s mother in the early days of his youth that he would turn to some evil company had gradually vanished. Though he mixed and talked to everybody, from the high world to low to the middle world, his own conduct was always within bounds; whether in respect of booze or ladies or ethics. His parents’ initial years of vigil on him were thus rewarded.

When Raghu opted for a pass course in commerce in college with no clear aim as to what he wanted to do next, his normally placid father also started to worry for him. He spent his college years biking with his friends, attending tuitions that his friends went to and clearing his exams modestly. His friends filled his forms for him as well whenever they applied for any course. He sat for whatever entrance exams his friends sat, not because he had any real intention of clearing them but just because he did not want to part the company of his friends. He miraculously got through the entrance exam for a prestigious law course. His parents were relieved, and got busy immediately with payment of fees for the course and packing his things for the hostel.

But Raghu though happy with the buzz created by the positive news was not entirely satisfied with the situation. He did not look with satisfaction the prospect of leaving his home and friends and going off to a new place. He went ahead nevertheless, but the next one and a half years were the most uncomfortable ones of his life; that is by Raghu’s standards. Just the fact that Raghu managed to clear the entrance exam was not going to convert him into an earnest law student. He hardly had the interest to go through fat books of jurisprudence. Though he loved to discuss how a particular case was fought and what the next steps are being contemplated by the lawyers or how a decision had come about. He missed his friends, his classmates here spent by far more time studying and worrying about their grades and far less time faffing around than Raghu’s expectations from them. At the end of the third semester, he told his parents he was not going back to the law school as he did not like the company there.

Raghu somehow maneuvered to get a refund from the Law school, of the balance fees for the period he would not be studying as the fees had been deposited upfront by his parents. He used the money to enroll himself in an MBA course, in one of the private institutes that had cropped up in the city; this was chiefly to guard himself against the fusillade coming from his home. His parents, perhaps, were not of the very passionate sort, for only a month or two had passed since his retreat from Law school and everything was as normal as possible; Raghu was back to his normal happy existence with his gang, albeit somewhat reduced from some friends have gone off to study in other places or moved into jobs.

 A client of his father happened to mention that a multinational agro company was opening a new unit in the neighbouring district. They were looking to recruit for positions of extension officers for a new seed variety they had launched. Raghu was interviewed and got the job. He found a comfortable house in the small town and shared it with another colleague who had newly joined like him. He stayed in his new establishment during the weekdays and rode back to his parents' place on the weekends. He found the job easy; so much so he could not believe that people paid him for it. Raghu and his colleague rode on his bike from one village to another. He spoke the local dialect well from the time spent in his ancestral farm. Rural folks in central India were then, and to a great degree even now, are innocent. They don’t have much, don’t aspire for much and are grateful for whatever they get. Guests, even complete strangers, are warmly welcomed. Raghu spoke in the local dialect to the villagers convincing them to adopt the new seeds. After he had conveyed the message and had distributed the first pack of free seeds supplied by his company, he enjoyed the hospitality of the villagers and chatted with them on local matters like crops, elections, etc., he disseminated any advice that villagers sought, without giving himself lot of trouble. Both men then rode back to their habitation often carrying with them copious amounts of fresh vegetables gifted by the villagers.

Raghu’s colleague, who was a timid and rather academic sort of person, had accepted a marketing profile only because he did not have any other choice, could not have asked for a better partner in his job than Raghu. He was in awe of Raghu’s abilities and gladly took care of all the paperwork of the job: forms, reports, and travel claims; with Raghu just putting on his autograph. Raghu worked on his signature a lot during this time and finally developed one that he could sign with a flourish. Raghu, meanwhile, had converted his MBA course to a part-time one. He attended classes now and then when he was home on weekends. Some very willing girls from his MBA class supplied him with notes and those were further summarized and orally recited to him for his convenience by his devoted colleague. He, thus, earned the degree of MBA with little trouble to himself. And that is how the MBA came to appear as the last educational qualification on his resume.

Raghu’s co-worker and Raghu had on papers been allotted to different areas for their extension job. But they found it convenient to work together. They covered as much ground as the company could have expected, even better. Out of six working days, the duo worked only for three to four days (but that was only between the two of them) and comfortably reached their targets. The roommate was a person well trained in housekeeping, enthusiastic about housework and with an eye for detail. He cooked and cleaned, gladly. And, still they had plenty of time to listen to latest numbers, watch a marathon of films on CD on their system, entertain friends they had newly made as well as old friends who frequently dropped by for overnight stay and also found time to debate on various problems plaguing their company, country and the world in general. This latest displacement had not caused Raghu the pain that his stint in Law school had; in fact, he was quite enjoying it.

The lens of Raghu’s life was focused just the right way and was showing him the exact view of the sort of life that he wanted. He did some serious introspection during this time. He decided that he wanted life to be just as it was now; nothing more and nothing less. He thought intensely of the strategies he should adopt to maintain the status quo of his life-state. He eventually settled on the recipe for a fulfilling life. Stay away from heavy sentiment and consequently, he will watch only comedies and good action movies. He would lose his dear parents one day, everybody did. He could not bear to think of it. But that would be many-many years later. Perhaps, he would be old and able to bear it then. And he will always have his dear little brother. Wherever they were, he will always have a friend in the lad. He did not want to trouble his mind with too heavy topics.

The daily news was something that was quite part of his life but then he could see it quite impassively. No intellectual heavy-lifting for him. He would ask innocuous questions to his many friends and they readily explained to him any complex items that happened to cross his path in his daily life. He would then appear quite knowledgeable when he next spoke of the issue. However, holding very senior posts was too much trouble. He was not aiming for it. Unless, of course, somebody gave it to him willingly, he was not a person to look at the gift horse in the mouth. He wanted to be around people who liked him, maybe admired him a bit, like his current buddy. He had a fair antenna of detecting people he liked to be with, and he felt confident in choosing his crowd. Basically, the last two would govern his professional choices henceforth.

He thought about women too. The achiever sort scared him; the flowery delicate sort bored him. Nonetheless, he had few female friends he liked a lot. But, whatever the type, he welcomed the attention from the fair sex. It made him feel good about himself. He was not unaware of the impression he made on women. Tall and fair with classic good looks, he made sure his wardrobe was always up to date. In fact, personal grooming was the only area on which he exerted himself. Often, he had extended pillion rides on his bike to female classmates, neighbors, and colleagues. He enjoyed good, light-hearted conversation with ladies. But, that was the limit of his chivalry. Any more involvement was too much for his convenience and further would certainly disturb the carefully nurtured balance of his life.... thus in his code to be avoided. 

There was some more. Sound financials, he decided that was the bedrock of happy existence. He lived frugally, except for branded clothes, his bike and bare essentials he tried to save all his salary. If out of a burst of generosity or from investing in a gadget, he happened to violate the lower threshold limit of his investments for that year, he made sure to compensate his coffers through some frugality or other.  

He meant to develop a formula whereby he could watch life pass by in good cheer without being disturbed much. And it had to be quite simple so that he was able to follow it thoroughly but without considerable trouble to himself.

Life went on nicely for Raghu. Two seasons passed. The farmers adopted the seeds sold by Raghu and were very happy with the results; their yield had tripled. They welcomed the pair even more on their subsequent visits. Several more rounds of seeds were easily sold by Raghu and his friend with even lesser effort. At the end of two years in this job, Raghu was rewarded with a promotion. Two acquaintances approached Raghu’s mother with eligible marriage proposals for Raghu. His brother smirked at the idea; Raghu’s marriage...hey did that sound? Irawati politely declined, saying that it was too early to think of Raghu’s marriage.

Just about this time, Raghu’s office grape-vine started to buzz about certain things that the company had been doing to the seeds. On his next few visits to the field, Raghu was convinced of what he saw. He observed the weeds, the soil and understood. He knew enough of farming to understand what was happening. All his success of the last two years started to give him a bad taste. It pushed him to a zone he did not want to be in, he had vowed he would not be in. He steadied himself saying he was no saint and certainly no crusader. It made him add another adage to his code. Stay away from trouble. He has since that day, developed a wonderful sense for impending danger and avoiding it.

 In his next weekend visit home, he announced stunning news to his parents the second time, he had resigned from his well-paid corporate job. In about three months, he added, that is after all his paperwork was in place, he was joining a bikers group on a bike tour. They meant to tour the entire Europe and a large part of Asia on a bike. His parents, would bye and bye get more used to the surprises Raghu sprang on them, and they would gradually develop an unwilling sort of understanding on most things. In fact, the invitation for the bike tour had come only the previous night from one of his oldest friends, the one whose father ran the garage he had spent so much time of his childhood in. Raghu did not hesitate to accept it.   


The hapless buddy that Raghu left behind would find a placement more suited to his temperament within the next three months. This friend has, since that time, risen the corporate ladder well and to this day retains a feeling of hero-like worship for Raghu and would not shy away from doing a good turn to his old buddy any day.

His mother prayed for his safety and his father stoically followed his tour itinerary referring a thick Atlas and Globe he kept at hand for the next eight months. His parents waited for his next call home. Raghu called from various countries and cities from wherever they were, from Pakistan-Iran border, from Iran, from Turkey, from Venice, Paris, London, Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev, Volgograd, Moscow, Omsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-batar, Beijing, Nanjing, Nanchang, Guiyang, Kunming till they entered Myanmar and through Manipur entered India and returned home. Aryan worshipped his brother for this bravado. There were news items on their trip, which Aryan proudly shared with his friends. Half-way through their trip, Raghu’s team even got corporate sponsorship. Many of Raghu’s biking teammates comprised of folks from the army. Aryan was much impressed by them. This trip, more than anything else, made Aryan decide that he wanted to join the army. 

Raghu completed his trip safely, well almost. Nearing his home, his bike had skid in the rain and he fractured his leg. He spent the next few months recovering in his mothers care. 

Over the next 15 years, Raghu would change ten jobs. A fair average; not very different from many others of his times.

He next got a job post his return from the Europe-Asia trip in an NGO; they found him suitable to handle their livelihoods project imparting knowledge to rural people on sustainable methods of farming. They judged this basis his previous experience with the Agro Company! He was there for three years. Raghu left when he sensed that his senior was randomly fudging the bills, forging signatures of the farmers they were supposed to aid. He left before things got too hot. The senior was fired from his job a few months after Raghu left. But was none the loser as he got a better job in another state. Raghu went to work on a government project next.

He left jobs when going got too tough for his liking; office politics and bickering became too much and starting to disturb his inner balance or the environment was too competitive and demanding for his comfort or the project ended. Twice, of course, he had left because while appearing for the interview he found the environment and people friendlier than his existing job. He always negotiated for a higher package, even if marginally so. Over the years he worked with Government, International NGOs, International Aid agencies, Pharma companies, real estate and in the hotel industry. Some of his contemporaries started applying for senior positions after a few years. Some succeeded in getting and few in retaining the positions they got. But never Raghu. His movement was always lateral and within his home state. An exception for a grade or two higher was acceptable but no more. He clearly saw the strings attached and wanted no part of it.   

From the time he was about twenty-six or twenty-seven, Raghu’s mother started to ask him to meet eligible girls to marry and settle down or to let her know if he had a girlfriend or liked any girl. She made several determined efforts and several other feeble efforts, sometimes combined with his father and sometimes solo over the next ten or so years. He thwarted all her attempts to get him hitched. Irawati worried about Raghu’s solitary existence. She hoped and prayed by turns distractedly, as she saw all her efforts come to naught, that some girl would attract him and coax him out of his vagabond sort of existence. Of this, she had despaired of late as Raghu trudged towards middle age. She wondered sometimes if he at all distinguished men from women.

But gratefulness is a great balm of human life. If Irawati could not recount professional achievements of her offspring like some mothers did she was grateful that she was not in league with some others who were struggling on the other side of the human existence with children battling alcohol, drug abuse, illnesses, over spending , bad relationships or bad lifestyle. Irawati was grateful that Raghu had always managed to sustain himself, there was just the method in his madness; he had supported himself ever since he returned from law school and never asked for financial aid from his father. His father, his brother, she and now his brother’s family received handsome gifts from Raghu from wherever he travelled. He regularly transferred some money to her account, despite her protests. She had observed how this act of Raghu had made his father proud of him. And she had felt glad for them both. Raghu ate healthy, avoided excesses and kept fit. And when Raghu was with them life seemed to want nothing.

Irawati’s husband’s family had owned several acres of farmland on the banks of River Narmada. When the dam on the Narmada came up the fields were submerged and the family was given compensation by the government for it. Her husband invested the money in buying four houses in various cities around the state. He gave two houses each to the two sons. They had to look after the upkeep of the house and collect the rent. This was meant as a rainy day resource for the sons. The brothers looked after their share of responsibilities but had never drawn upon the money which accumulated every month in their bank accounts. The money stood like an invisible protective arm of their father for days when he may not be there.  

Raghu spent his evenings much the same way in his twenties, as in his thirties and now in his early forties, irrespective of the place he was in; whether in his own current place of residence or on the occasional trip with his bikers gang or visiting home. Evenings were still spent with friends if any were available or else on the phone catching up. A film or some TV, some light reading and off to bed. No mean achievement; it was to be attributed to his dogged determination of keeping up his spirits and to some measure a boon of destiny.

Raghu’s latest job, which had lasted a little over two years, was in a far-away property in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh with a well-known hotel chain. He was a sort of top dog of the property. The hotel group was known for its lofty advertisements but for being a poor paymaster. He would have got the job because no one wanted to come to the obscure place at the offered pay or may be because, his uncle’s name, who was an Indian Administrative Services officer and posted in the state, was mentioned as his referee on his CV. His father’s health was in a bad shape when he joined. He was afraid they would lose him soon. That was made him accept the job. He wanted to escape the solemn place his happy home was becoming. As if by changing places somehow he will be able to rewrite the destiny.

The job did seem to help quell the unhappiness in Raghu. Nature had its way of working on troubled souls. The job also kept him very busy. They had about forty staff. Guests were few in number but well heeled, they were paying a fortune to be comfortable in nature’s lap so they had to be provided with all their needs even before they could sense anything wanting.  

Some years had passed since Raghu’s father first started to feel unwell. He had felt tired and was not able to keep his usual hours. Tests had revealed a heart condition. He subsequently underwent bypass surgery. Raghu spent two months at his bed-side. Aryan came as frequently as he could. His father recovered for some time, though nowhere close to his becoming his old self. He gave up practicing law, remained confined to his bed mostly save taking small walks in the garden. Raghu saw on subsequent visits how frail he was becoming. Doctors ruled out further surgery as he was too frail. He had to be kept as comfortable as possible with medicines for the rest of his time.

He saw his mother’s efforts to tend to his father as if she was laying out the last ounce of her energy to give him a few more days. Raghu was happy to see how Aryan’s toddler gave his father joy.

 Raghu’s mother and Devyani, Raghu saw, kept an alert eye on his father moment to moment. They were keeping tab always if his breathing was quite smooth; he could see the alarm it triggered on their faces if Dad coughed a little more. His father too understood their concern and would smile wanly and ask them to relax and rest. Devyani had lost her mother in her childhood. Her father has single-handedly brought her and her elder brother up. She had lost her father to cancer only a year prior to her marriage. Another break in the family that had filled her life with so much love was a frightening prospect to her. Irawati confided to Raghu that she felt bad for Devyani and Aryan that the early days of their marriage when couples enjoyed themselves most had to be so stressful for them. Raghu was glad of the sister he had found. When Aryan was home, the three of them could be seen chatting till late sitting on the porch with the toddler asleep in one of their arms.  

 When they had got married, Devyani did not join Aryan in his place of posting. She stayed with her in-laws and continued to work with her father-in-law. After her father-in-law’s health started going downhill for a while Devyani looked after her father-in-law’s practice. But she had an infant son to look after. So much of the work was passed on to her father-in-law’s old friend and colleague.

Benny and Reeti were a few months old in the company when Raghu joined. No staff stayed on for long-time in this obscure place except for the lower-level staff who was from nearby villages and towns. Reeti looked after the Finance and Administration and Benny’s work was to attract people to this place. He made ads, wrote blogs interacted with customers who were interested in the resort and also looked after guest satisfaction.

Benny had a family. His wife preferred to stay in the city where his two young kids were studying. Benny was an absent father except to his dog; he had traveled all over the country with his faithful retriever in tow for various jobs he had worked in.

One day, while going through the employee data Raghu was surprised to discover Reeti’s credentials. She had an Australian CPA, an MBA from an American University and had worked in big four accounting firms and international hotel chains. Why she came to work in this obscure place he could not understand. He felt almost ashamed to think that the management had made him the supervisor to this super-achiever. Life was strange, he had seen so many people fight like cats and dogs on trivial issues when their own self was concerned; how can my colleague be given a promotion if he had joined fifteen days later than me, my qualifications are more than his, I helped him with the project and she gets the promotion; how many times had he not heard such squabbles. And he had to live to see this woman who lived in the same world as the others and wore dip in her career graph willingly and proudly like a jewel, without as much as a sigh.

If Raghu was not interested greatly in anything and just wanted to see life roll by contentedly, Reeti was the opposite. Everything interested her and she got involved in everything and everybody. Raghu wondered how long it would be before she got completely burnt out. Raghu soon discovered that Reeti was like an enquiry counter, no like Google. Anybody and everybody who was stuck with something or was looking for an idea got in touch with Reeti. Reeti was sought if the cook wanted to try something different for a group of visiting foreigners or the IT guy was stuck with low connectivity or if Benny wanted someone to proof-read his blog or if a guest wanted to know the history of the ancient temple ten kilometres away from the resort. She could be found scolding and counselling by turns one of the guards who was not sending his daughters to school, complementing the gardener on the fabulous row of Jasmine that he had grown, patting Benny’s dog and reminding her mother on the cell to take her medicines all the while walking to her office.

In the evenings it had become a routine for the three of them, Raghu, Reeti, and Benny to get together for some coffee and conversation, even if it got late due to one or the other of them getting stuck with some work. Everyone lived on the premises so it was not as if they had to commute home. More often than not, it was Reeti who was held back. Raghu would wait patiently for her to wind up her job on a bench in front of her office, watching the sun go down and the fireflies light up the garden. Benny was a good conversationalist and a lively person. Raghu enjoyed his company. These evening meetings somehow helped Raghu weather the emotional storm going within him. He looked forward to this from day to day. 

Raghu felt comfortable around Reeti in a way he felt around a few women or men, for that matter. He could ask her anything without feeling conscious and that was not just something pertaining to enhancing his knowledge and she would explain patiently. She had the innocence of a school girl combined with the maturity of a sage so no one felt self- conscious while conversing with her. Raghu had never known another person as knowledgeable as Reeti; he could hardly fathom how anybody could have crammed so much information in the little space of a brain. Whenever guests were few and they had time on hand Benny, Reeti, Raghu and some other colleagues took long walks on the property or in the surrounding jungles, Reeti always had interesting details to narrate about some tree or bird or animal. Raghu found pleasure in his old habit of just observing; he observed while Reeti spoke her tone did not have the faintest touch of condescension, it was as if she had discovered a magical world and was eager for her friends to be a part of it. 

Raghu asked Reeti why she had not married or why she chose to come and work in this obscure place with all her sterling credentials. Reeti said that she would marry if and when she felt that it will make her happier than how she felt now, around her parents, family and friends. Not just because one had to get married. That she had not had any occasion to change her views till date. And as to why she accepted this job, she said that she had stopped measuring the degree of success of her life with other people’s standards. She loved nature, her parents could be with her and she was able to exercise the skills she had and live comfortably. It made her happy for the time being, so she was here.

Reeti’s parents had come down to live with her in her quarters. He dropped over to her place sometimes. Her mother always had some interesting sweet ready. Her parents loved to travel and they had travelled all over the world. Raghu liked to listen to their travel stories, sometimes narrated anecdotes from his own travels. They reminded him terribly of his own parents. If only his father were blessed with good health. Reeti’s mother sometimes narrated stories of her only grandchild, the daughter of Reeti’s elder brother who lived in Delhi. Raghu, in turn, narrated the antics of his nephew.    

Raghu had to travel frequently back home during his father’s last days when his father was frequently hospitalized. Reeti, Benny, and others covered for him without a word. The colleagues came down to attend Raghu’s father’s funeral. Raghu could barely express how grateful he felt for their kindness.

After his death, Irawati and Devyani decided to sell Raghu and Aryan’s father’s law practice over to his old friend; he had sons who had studied law and would take care of his clients well. Devyani only retained a few portfolios for herself, those that she could work on from offsite. Devyani helped her mother-in-law organize her late father-in-law’s estate. Aaryan and Devyani welcomed their second son two months after their father’s death. Aaryan would soon be posted to Hyderabad. After the affairs around their home had been organized, they closed their old home and joined Aaryan at his family station.

Sometimes after their evening coffee time, Reeti would go home and Benny and Raghu lingered over drinking beer. Benny was rather fonder of his booze; Raghu suspected the booze was the bone of contention between Benny and his wife. Raghu would just sit-up with him as both did not have much to do in the evenings. They ate at the staff canteen and went to bed in their quarters.

Benny and Raghu both felt protective like elder brothers for Reeti, seeing how intensely she felt and how genuinely exerted herself to her job. For Reeti integrity and quality came first both for her and her team than internal deadlines which will ‘make her win the crown’ as she said. Since she was so taken up with finishing tasks, hers and others in the team, well, she had sometimes missed deadlines. Benny and Raghu had stood up for her with higher-ups on some occasions. Raghu saw Reeti was tall had beautiful eyes and features but no casual onlooker would call her a beauty. It was as if she tried to hide her beauty as much as other women took measures to project theirs. Both Benny and Raghu were giving some thought to this issue.

“Hey Reeti”, said Benny, “Why don’t you put on some make-up like other women? And buy some smart clothes other than dragging on in those old jeans always? You could talk to my wife she will take you under her care and give you excellent advice.”

 “And now I have to hear this outside my home too, has my mother been speaking to you both lately? I promise all of you, ha, I will run for Miss India next year. Only I don’t think they will have me at 34. Or maybe Mrs. India then? Only I am not married. I’ll check up the rules in any case”

The company corporate office ran certain monthly competitions among various units, like timely submission of monthly financials, correctness, and compliance in monthly financials, sales targets, and feedback from internal and external customers’ rankings and such like. One month the results had come in and Raghu was going through them. Reeti had missed the submission of the financial deadline by two days. This was the second time this had happened. He needed to speak to her. He was not aware of any extraordinary circumstances that would have led to the delayed submission. 

Reeti entered in his room in a bustle, carrying her open laptop.

“Good, you called me in, I wanted to share something with you”, said Reeti.

“Reeti”, Raghu said, “you never let me know that you will not be able to submit the financials on time”.

“Because I did not think that would happen. Anyway, we submitted within the extended deadline. But...”

“You know very well that makes us lose the early bird points. What happened?”

“Something unexpected, something I discovered that I was coming to tell you....”

“Related to this task?”

“Not exactly...”

“See Reeti”, continued Raghu “what I want to say is, you may not care about success as you call it but other people here have to fend for their families when the unit gets a bad rating not just you and I, but all are affected. Each staff here as everywhere works for and looks forward to getting a good appraisal and hence some increase in take home for their families in the next year. We let them down when we don’t try our best.”

“Yes, I suppose I deserve this homily, it doesn’t matter if one has given eons to thinking how to make things useful for all or how many extra hours one has worked to ensure that everything stays on the right side of law and humanity. But a mistake is a mistake. I am sorry, I got carried away”.

Raghu did not say anything in reply. He just kept looking at her; her face looked drawn.

“Are you unwell?”

“No, only I have slept for only three hours every night for the last three days. I had to report this to you in any case. Would you just come over and look at my screen? ”

Raghu pulled up a chair beside Reeti and looked at the screen she had opened on her laptop. It looked like the company ledger report, some transactions were highlighted. Reeti continued, “You see normally each unit has access to only its own transactions; only during the window when we are allowed to upload the financials the transactions for the entire company can be seen. This must be due to an error in the ERP but I accidentally discovered this a few months ago. Every month when Vikas forwards me the financials for review and approval I do some checks. Among other things I scan the ledgers before approving, just an old habit of mine that I stick by. After I was through and had made the necessary corrections, I was just curious about the state of affairs at other units. I started to go through some of their ledgers. For Jaipur, I saw the monthly transactions from the head office, transferring the monthly staff reimbursements to the local bank account. The local bank account showed the receipts and subsequent payments. And yet when I checked the payables to staff ledger there is a huge amount of outstanding. Then I went back to the company address book and the accounts department org-chart to find out who the accountant and the signatories were in Jaipur. Something else struck me that there were no narrations against these payments, unlike other payments. I traced old mails to check when he had joined, and I saw the transactions started six months after he had joined and that the smaller amounts of checks, that is less than INR 10,000 in Jaipur was signed jointly by the accountant and the Admin officer. Probably, at that level, the admin officer was not even fully cognizant of what he was signing off. I then checked his facebook account, linked in and glassdoor account and found that he was a rotten apple. Regular show off got quite a few bad feedback as well.”

“That is amazing Reeti,” said Raghu “You are so thorough in what you do. But you were doing all this for another unit and all the while delaying your own financials and losing points for yourself. That was fantastic.”

Reeti did not understand perfectly whether he was making fun of her or was praising her. She said, “I do not know if I can make you understand the fix I was in. If I closed my accounts, I would lose the access which I had by some fluke. And then if what I had initially seen was indeed something or turned out to be something at a later date I would have done wrong, at least to my conscience, by not revealing a wrong-doing. And if I revealed a half-baked idea, for one I would be charged for accessing data which I was not supposed to, but which was not my fault and which I will still be in any case but it does not matter. And the other that I might be charged for unnecessarily creating trouble; I might even be attributed with ulterior motives. Or if it turned out to nothing, I would have unnecessarily caused expenditure to the company who were bound to investigate this; sending them on a wild goose chase.”

“Fine Reeti, I think I understand you,” said Raghu, “You write a mail to me putting down whatever you have observed and I will do the needful. You may now go back to your work. I will see you in the evening for coffee”.

That evening when Raghu and Reeti were walking from her room towards their Coffee Joint he was able to satisfy her that her efforts had been vindicated. He had called up the Director Operations and revealed the developments as well as forwarded her Reeti’s mail. The lady initially took some time to understand but eventually he was able to convey. She had thanked him and asked to convey her thanks to Reeti.

“But don’t expect any medals from the company for this. And I know perfectly well that you never do. You may receive a note of thanks from the Director. For all I know, the honchos may be classifying you as a nosy pest, someone to watch out for, for all your efforts.”

Raghu and Reeti knew the information had its desired effect when they heard that the Senior Accountant of Jaipur had suddenly resigned. Reeti was never able to access other units’ financials after that date and they had a new system of reimbursements where electronic transfers were directly done to staff accounts from HO. And Reeti would also eventually receive a mail thanking her for her efforts from the Director Operations.

That evening Reeti went back to her quarters early after their coffee. She wanted to catch up on her sleep. Raghu and Benny lingered over a beer for quite some time. Raghu had a beer extra than his usual. Raghu narrated to Benny, what had happened between him and Reeti earlier in the day and Reeti’s ‘discovery’. Benny was a senior in the company and no harm in taking him into confidence. Benny listened carefully and with wonder.

“This girl is unique, no questions on that”, he said.

“Raw spunk and all heart”, continued Benny, “Her father shared with me the other day, he and her mother worry about the ‘activist’ streak in her, as he put it. How long before the ‘systems’ built for and by self-serving people threw her or broke her? They want her to work in some first world country, at least where there is some degree of meritocracy.”

“Actually her Daddy told me something more. A classmate of Reeti from her MBA class had fallen for her. She will not have him. But he is persistent. He works with BNP Paribas. Her parents are in Delhi, as you may know, for her father's medical check-up. The guy had wanted to meet her parents, hoping they can persuade her yet to say ‘yes’.” 

“And what do her parents think of him?” asked Raghu 

“They like him. No harm was known of him. But, of course, they would not want Reeti to do something in which her heart is not there. But they do hope that she may change her mind and accept him happily.” 

Raghu felt an anger rise in him. He hardly knew who he was angry at. The saner side of his brain told him the drink was aggravating a small feeling somewhere; that it was not real. Now was the time to apply the brakes. He should go to bed. But instead, he ordered the boy waiting on them to bring in more drinks. Benny was happy to have a partner in his booze, with no notion how worked up Raghu was inside. He kept up the banter of small talk. Raghu was hardly listening, mechanically putting a small comment here and there. And Benny himself was high enough not to notice any change in Raghu. There is a thing about self-control. When the first gate comes loose, the subsequent ones are much easier to breakthrough. By the time Raghu was sitting on his bed he was angry, sad, confused and feeling totally out of control. Why should she be unhappy? She should have told him. They talk such a lot. And she never told me she had any thoughts of moving. He needed to ask

Past midnight, Reeti was woken from her slumber by her cell ringing. The clock on her bed-side showed 12.10. She panicked, Either Mum or Dad must have fallen ill and her brother was perhaps calling her to inform. She was greatly relieved to see Raghu’s name flashing on her cell.

“I am sorry Reeti, for calling you at this hour”

“Never mind,” said Reeti all alert, “Is there an emergency somewhere?”

There were a few moments of intriguing silence.

“No”, he said.

“I don’t know if I could ask this in the morning, I mean I never thought you were unhappy here. You never told me so and you always tell me what you are thinking, huh?” His voice was a drunken drawl. “You are leaving Reeti, are you? Do you want to leave this place? Please tell me, don’t hang up on me.”

Reeti was aghast; she had never heard Raghu talk like this. It was good her parents were not in the next room. How embarrassing such a midnight call would otherwise be for her to explain?

"You have been drinking, eh?"

“Yes, I had one and then two beers and then more and then I lost count”

After an awkward pause of several seconds Raghu said “I am sorry, Reeti. Goodbye” and hung up

In the morning Raghu woke with a throbbing head. He had a faint memory of the previous night. He was ashamed but clear on what he needed to do.

When he entered Reeti’s room she was sitting morosely. She was a sensitive girl and did not take losing friends very easily. How strangely Raghu had behaved, she would have to change her thinking about Raghu and keep him at an arm’s length as if he were a loafer? Instead of considering him a friend. She had become used to thinking him as a friend she looked up to?

Raghu looked just as neat and poised as always, only a bit calmer, not so exuberant. He looked Reeti in the eyes and said “Reeti, I have come to apologize. I am deeply ashamed of my behavior. I am hoping that you will respect our friendship and forgive a moment of weakness in a friend. My word, I shall never put you through anything like this ever again.”  

She looked intently for a moment to judge if this was the drama of a loafer but could detect only earnestness in the look. Then said slowly, Raghu I will forget that I ever received a call. She smiled relieved to have her friend back.

Not such a surprise to Raghu, but it certainly came as a rude surprise to all other staff. Raghu had sensed it for some time, his old antenna for danger stirring. Innocuous signals, the sighs and lack of spirit in the conversations at the review meetings, the noncommittal approach of the Zone's head and the Top Dog, the Bull Dog were telling him something well before the call came in from the Zone Head. The company had decided to close the unit. They were not making a loss, but they were not making enough profit either. The resort will honour all the bookings for the next three months and they would gradually wind up. The management was not selling the property; a skeletal staff would be left behind for its maintenance. Till a better alternative was figured out, either a newer better plan to run it profitably or an eligible buyer emerged for the property it would be kept closed. Raghu had been through some winding-ups earlier and it was a space he hated to be in. It was pathetic to watch helplessly people around you losing their jobs. But this time he would not take this, he will give it his best shot, whatever it took. 

The Corporate office asked for recommendations from Raghu as to which of the staff could be accommodated in the other units. He recommended the names for Reeti, Benny, the two accounts staff and the IT boy. The Corporate office had no problem in accommodating Reeti and Benny in the Corporate Office at Delhi. Benny was able to be with his family after many years. The rest of the staff was accommodated in other units, wherever there was a vacancy.

As for the others being retrenched, mostly local boys and girls, he pulled on all strings in his network for them. He reached out to his friends in the hotel industry, government and other corporate. He had each and every one of these placed in other hotels either locally or maximum within a radius of hundred kilometres.

As for himself, Raghu had an offer, the company was opening a new unit in Aizawl and he was asked to set up the unit and launch it.

Raghu was not thinking at all about what he was going to do next. He went about his numerous tasks related to winding up checking, approving and reporting, as if this was what he would go on doing eternally.

But waking up one morning he knew it. He would stop masquerading in the corporate world; he had done enough of it. Capable people like Reeti and Benny must occupy the places they deserved, more so the society deserved them. He was never the smartest, never wanted to be nor, heaven forbid, was he a saint. But, thank God, he had the honesty left in him to admit what he deserved. The idea of going back and working in his ancestral farm appealed to him. A cousin of his father and his wife, a childless couple stayed at the ancestral home and looked after their fields. This Uncle and Aunt had always been extremely affectionate to Raghu and Aryan. Raghu was confident they would welcome him. He earnestly felt this was where he belonged. He would not thrive anywhere other than this place.

However, Reeti, Benny, Aryan, Devyani explained, cajoled and requested him, he smiled and joked but was firm in his decision.

Irawati was saying, “I hope the heat is not getting you, please have a lot of fluids and raw onions, they will protect you from heat, son. I must speak to Usha to remind her”.

“You don’t have to Ma; she is too happy to have me around and indeed takes very good care of me.”

“Your nephews keep asking for you, when do you think you will be able to make a trip to Hyderabad? It has been eight months since you came home.”

“Soon, Ma. As soon as the crop is cut and the accounts settled, I’ll drive down.”

“Must you strain yourself so, why don’t you take a train or fly down from Indore or Bhopal?”

“No Ma, I would love to drive down. I can bring a few bags of wheat for you guys and perhaps I can persuade a few friends to accompany me so it would be quite jolly.”

“Sure son, your brother and Devi will always be happy to receive you and any of your friends”

“Yes Ma, I never doubt that.... Take your medicines on time and I will see you all soon. Bye Ma.”

A car had stopped by the road. It looked like the travelers had stopped for some air attracted by the change in weather. A man, who probably had been at the driver’s seat, had come out and was leaning by the car and looking at the fields. Another passenger, a lady, had come out; perhaps the man’s wife, she had a DSLR camera and was clicking photos of the scenery. A child had also alighted; she slid down the slight slope on the side of the road and was standing at the edge of the field. She was waving at the lady, trying to catch her attention and wanted to be photographed with her doll or whatever she was carrying. When her wish had been fulfilled, the child started to walk along the edges of the field, plucked a marigold from the hedge. Raghu saw that the parents, unlike many other city parents, were quite cool, they did not try to call back the child from her wanderings and looked at her from a distance.

There was a cry from the child, Raghu was alarmed and started towards her. He understood in a few moments, the ‘doll’ that the child was carrying was a furry pup it had managed to wriggle itself through the hedge and enter the fields and the child was crying for it, moreover, she was not able to follow it through the hedge. Raghu rapidly crossed a hundred meters or so between them, picked up the furry thing in a scoop and handed it over to her owner. She smiled a huge smile of relief. A very catching smile the child had, Raghu thought, seems to light up her whole face. Presently, the dad came up to them, he too smiled and thanked Raghu for restoring the pup. He scooped up the duo in his arms and started towards his car. A sweet scene, it pierced him somewhere. In his forty-two years, nothing much had happened which would cause him to look at his life or his choices with any great disappointment. But just that, it must be something to call a sweet little thing like that your own.

He saw the car drive away. His cell rang. It was the driver of the harvester asking for directions. After he had dealt with him there was another call, this time it was Benny.

“Hi! Son of the soil, how you doing?”

“Great, never felt better. The crop is ready and as soon as it is cut I shall sleep to my heart’s content for the next three months.” 

Raghu continued, “If I am not mistaken, your voice tells me you were napping at your desk? Yet again Mr. Benny?”

“No...No...Bro how can you talk so to a hardworking foot soldier toiling day and night for the company?”

“Only, I’ll tell you what all over Delhi, they have put up electronic billboards ‘Don’t Drink and drive’ so I stopped having my glass of milk for breakfast in the morning, as I have to be driving down to work, and that makes me feel sleepy. Lack of energy, Bro!”

“But that doesn’t cover the glass at night. You must be thankful for that, Obedient Child! By the way, how is Reeti?” asked Raghu

“You are so right Bro. Some trouble with the missus with the night glass, she has started rationing it but I am managing. About Reeti, I wouldn’t call her well. But she would disagree with me. The Bull Dog here makes her work like a slave-master, all with a smile. She got a promotion last month. But I doubt she will live to enjoy her stature. Did Reeti not call you?”

“No, I last spoke to her more than a month ago.”

“Two weeks ago, she collapsed in the office. Overwork, said her doctor. He has prescribed her anti-anxiety drugs I guess. A week of rest and she was back in the office. The Bull Dog wanted her to submit a plan for the revival of our old unit. She had to travel to the unit. Her brother and his family offered to accompany her so that all of them have a small break, I guess they are worried about her health and want to keep an eye on her. They drove down from Delhi. They must be on their way back. They are expected to reach Delhi tonight. Or, latest by midday tomorrow. I told Reeti to check up on you as I was sure your village would be somewhere about the route. Only, for the life of me, I could not recall the name Nizampur or Najibabad or something is it not? ”

“It is Nazirabad, but I hardly think you will be able to trace it on the map.”

“Oh yes, I recall now. I checked on Reeti yesterday, she was going on in full steam. She has to be on top of her daily routine as well as complete this additional task. She was on the laptop all through her onward journey and I guess must be so on her return as well. If she had a moment’s break I am sure she would have checked on you. She is getting this haggard look by looking at the screen and being on the phone all the time, boy. Do speak to her some time.” 

“Yes, I will. And will you visit me soon? I am driving down to Hyderabad sometime next month to be with my family. You can stay with me in the village for a couple of days and then drive down with me.”

“That is a capital idea. I’ll go for it. The missus and the kids will go to her Mother's place when the kids’ school closes”.

“Let me know when you can come. Take the train to Jhansi. I’ll drive down and pick you up from there.”

After Raghu had disconnected Benny, Mohan came in running to tell him his aunt was waiting for him with his cool mango drink. ‘Aam Panna’, the mango drink was made around here to beat the heat. And also that his Uncle and his friends were waiting for him in the village square to join them for their evening chit-chat. Mohan was about twenty or twenty-one, he would take over Raghu’s vigil till Raghu returned to sleep in the field at night. He would also have made a bed for Raghu in the middle of the field by then. Mohan and his siblings were very bright. They went to local schools and colleges. Actually, Raghu’s family had contracted with Mohan’s family for tilling their land and in return half of the produce went to them. But Raghu was glad to take up their duties and give the children their time to study, which inevitably would have been compromised otherwise as their father would have called upon them to partake in his labour. Mohan had his books with him; he would study by a solar lamp while keeping his vigil.

The air had become a lot cooler though it did not rain much; the sun was going down in a red ball. After a quiet happy evening, Raghu would return to his cool bed under the stars. And to a night, full of dreams.

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