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Ambadass takes one paw and paints the toe-nails blood-red with a cheap nail-polish. It’s the same color as the paan juice that bubbles out of his lips. The stray bitch sits on her haunches, offering her other paw when he’s done with the first. He drapes a shimmering, nylon scarf around her torso, holds it in place with several safety-pins, and puts a couple of brightly-colored hair-bands at regular intervals on her tail. The animal knows she’ll get something to eat after this ordeal. Passers-by stand and watch, click pictures on their mobile phones. Ambadass brings her a full mug of tea and two pieces of bread or a packet of biscuits when there’s a lull in activity on the platform, when he sits down with his own tiffin.
“Today’s going to be busy,” he says to his companion, Mahakaal. “There’s a group of twenty scientists coming in from Mumbai, four businessmen from the U.A.E, a couple from Israel, a journalist from England. I hope you’ve informed the Guest House.”
Mahakaal nods. He’s sitting on the other side of the dog, squeezing the pus from a pimple on his cheek.
As representatives of New Foods Limited (NFL), the duo gets respect from railway staff, casual workers, stall-owners and even the beggars on the station. Here, in Tunkapur, only those who work for the Government or NFL don’t starve. Indeed, whole families depend on them for livelihoods.
Thirty years ago, only slow trains stopped here. As Bapurao Shah’s baby, NFL, grew and Bapurao turned from a cigarette-stall black-marketer to a bright-white safari-suited, gold-buttoned, Mercedes-owning industrialist, this dusty village became a bold dot on school-maps. From growing genetically-engineered, quick-ripening, not-easily-perishable tomatoes to exporting dehydrated onion and garlic powders, from the latest cooling technology and transportation methods to experiments in finance and systems, “it is the largest manufacturer and exporter of banana powder not only in India, but in the world,” locals proudly tell visitors and relatives. “Every time someone in the world drinks a banana milkshake or banana flavored dessert, he’s adding to the coffers of Bapurao Shah.”
And Bapurao, shrewd as ever at 70 years, depends on and has direct communication with those on the ground, away from offices … he can’t do without the likes of Ambadass.
“Ambya.” It’s Bapurao’s number on the cellphone. “There’s a Shri Kabra coming, ok? Srimatiji also. Extra care.”
“Sir, will be taken care of,” Ambadass barks into the cellphone, then wipes his spittle off it and goes back to grooming the dog.
“Who? Who’s coming?” Mahakaal’s irritatingly curious.
“Must be some manager, director, something. So many have come, gone.”
A family dragging luggage notices Ambadass: two adults and two children dip their heads respectfully, muttering “Ram-Ram” in greeting.
Ambadass and Mahakaal are the role models of the district. Mothers include their names in nursery rhymes. Fathers wish their sons would follow their footsteps. Getting a job at NFL is a dream. Getting to be as powerful at these two… surpasses local ambition. They acknowledge the greeting, stretch out in unison, making a long-drawn sighing sounds of part relief, part boredom.
“VIP coming?” Mahakaal asks. Ambadass is annoyed by his eagerness.
“Stop getting excited. Not now. Mr Kabra’s coming by the evening train.”
“Will have to do something about this Kaa-abraa,” retorts Ambadass, hate obvious in the way he drawls the name.
“Mahakaal, you are childish. Speak like a man. Speak slowly. Deliberately like Amitabh, not breathless like Shahrukh. Learn from Bapurao. Slowly, softly between us. When we have to get work out of any bastard, then abuse. Use full volume. You must learn, learn.”
“This Kabra,” Mahakaal asks after a moment. “You don’t like him, I think.”
“He asks too many questions.”
“Mahakaal, shut up. I’ll do the talking. Don’t interrupt.”
The bitch yelps, startled. Both men whack her together. She runs away, tail between her legs, then returns to creep underneath the bench on which they are sitting.
“Remember those two English saabs? One died, fell out of the train. The other made a police complaint. Two years ago, was it?”
“Yayayaya,” Mahakaal recalls the incident clearly. They were the second lot to get into “trouble” with Ambadass. They had been brought in as directors, had they own cars with drivers who weren’t local, who had wanted to check accounts. Accounts, hisaab, if you please. They hadn’t a clue how much money was needed for bribing these railway fellows for getting out of quota, out of turn tickets, reservations for guests. Ambadass took pride in the fact that not once had a guest been turned back for lack of seat or berth. Could he have done that if he had kept account? It was but natural that he did the job for a fee. Bapurao didn’t mind it, so who were these fellows to ask? They had said Ambadass lived beyond his means, that he owned a house with four rooms. Poor man who asked questions fell out of a train soon after it left Tunkapur. He had to travel by train because that day his car didn’t work. The mechanic said it would take five days to get a spare part. The mechanic cost Ambadass five hundred. He’d helped him the first time, too, a man who spoke little, someone Ambadass cultivated, and the “fertilizer” was a bottle and a bai occasionally.
“Maybe,” interrupted Mahakaal, “Bapurao doesn’t want to check himself, maybe he wants these people to do it for him.”
Ambadass sits in brooding, ominous silence. “Check what?”
Mahakaal continues: “Hisaab. Accounts.”
Ambadass’ confident tone returns: “No. Bapurao will not change. He will not ask us. He wants that before he dies NFL should make some rules, have people who will sign, like in the government. So that his sons will do things without being told what to do. But he won’t do it. He will then not be in control. He has the power because he has access to us. Not the other way around. We tell him what’s happening in the factory. We tell him whom to trust. We tell him how many trucks came, how much maal was loaded, don’t we? Why does he need managers, directors, when he has us? Kabirdas’ couplet says, a sword can’t do the work of a needle. Jahaan kaam avey sui vahan kaa karey talwar.”
Mahakaal stares at him. “Where do you learn these things?”
“You’re an idiot. Get out, see what’s happening at the tea-stall.”
Loiterers at corner tea-shops look at Mahakaal with respect: “You both here today? Some VIP coming?”
“Can’t tell you.”
“Politician? From Delhi? Mumbai?”
“I said can’t tell you.”
“But we’ll tell you something. Sachinrao Himmat from Zilla Subedpur is starting a company. The government is favoring it. Bapurao wants to stop him. You know Patil? He’s desperate to get into the CM’s chair. Bapurao has promised him a chair in the Assembly. It’s the old story of ‘you feed my buffalo, I’ll milk your cow’.”
Mahakaal doesn’t tell Ambadass any of this. He decides to directly tell Bapurao himself. He has to, wants to make his voice heard.
Mahakaal’s world lies between Bhusawal and Tunkapur, a distance of less than eighty kilometers. The television on the platform, his eavesdropping on the conversation of the guests that he escorts to and from NFL, and his exposure to world-class NFL processes have ignited his latent intelligence. He has been schooled in the wild ways of the coolies and cleaners of the station. His bed is amidst the cartons flung atop the same tea-stall that he sits near during the day. His job is with Ambadass but he has wormed his way into Bapurao’s presence many a time.
Ambadass takes pride in his protégée. “My buddhoo,” he boasts, “is getting smart, dekho. Now, he has a phone of his own.”
In NFL, with a certain kind of employee, the turnover is high. Those who won’t toe the line go. Bapurao works from the guts, with guts. Professionalism as taught by MBA schools has no place here. Sweetness and diplomacy works. And ruthlessness when needed. When a job has to be done, the means don’t matter. NFL doesn’t depend on outsiders, it makes its own laws. Bapurao’s advisors are childhood chums, brothers-in-law, people he’s known from the past, like Nana Deshmukh, who used to transport, without taking money, Bapurao’s goods when the company was a fledgling. The credit, with interest, is still being paid in hospitality, 40 years down the line. NFL raised Tunkapur out of starvation. A grateful district has heaped honors and awards upon Bapurao. (Statues of him have been kept in readiness. The day he dies every colony will install one.)
Bapurao utters guttural sounds that only his inner circle seems to decipher. Ambadass and Mahakaal can. Many are the instantaneous, instinctive decisions, mumbled in passing, executed by the duo. Like the bottle-cap factory, erected on a whim: it was a disaster, but from it arose the packaging plant, India’s best. Every advisor had said it wasn’t a feasible project. As always, Bapurao proved them wrong.
Kabra arrives by the North India Mail. He’s taken the flight from Chennai to Nashik and then the train to Tunkapur. Someone had met him at Nashik station, handed over home-cooked, packed food for the journey, water, soft-drinks of his choice, wet-wipes, liquid soap, in a hamper; and unobtrusively taken it away when he’d finished with it. Kabra knew he was being watched.
On arrival at Tunkapur, he looks around. “No one else is here, sir, only me,” says Ambadass, doing a namaste. “I’ve got the car, made the arrangements.”
Kabra asks him a few days later: “What exactly do you do?”
“Customer service,” is Ambadass’ prompt reply.
“Are you an officer? Supervisor?”
Kabra can’t get much information out of him.
“You have Bapurao’s number on your phone?”
Mahakaal, however, tells Kabra their salaries, the advantages of their job, the perk: Bapurao’s full faith, full affection. They sit at a separate baithak privately with Bapurao; all commands, from the tiniest tasks to the most improbable ones, are carried out. No questions asked, no answers sought. When Bapurao goes abroad, he gets gifts for them: umbrellas with torches attached, fluorescent socks, non-skid mats, battery-operated screw-drivers. Objects of envy. The value doesn’t matter. Exclusivity does.
“Kabra will destroy us,” Ambadass mutters to Mahakaal. “I sense something. He has to go. If something happens to Bapurao, he will throw us out.”
“No one stays long.”
“This one is a lambay race ka ghoda. He’s staying. A bungalow in the factory, day-boarding for the children, a car with a driver, petrol allowance. He’s come to settle, for sure. He doesn’t like us.”
Mahakaal hangs around Kabra. “Any work for me?” he asks him regularly. He makes sure the petrol bills are inflated, the children are given goodies that NFL pays for, the wife’s shopping is done even before she seeks the items, verbally whips the servants… If Kabra’s going to be the new Sa’ab, Mahakaal figures he, Mahakaal, must be the new Ambadass.
Back at the railway-platform the following week Ambadass says, “I can’t put a finger to it. There’s an air of unpleasantness. Kabra… what to make of him?”
Mahakaal is silent.
“We are like parivar, Mahakaal. Bapurao’s daughters-in-law are our bhabhis. Kabra… he’s an intruder. One week since he’s been here….I haven’t received a single call from Bapurao. Have you?”
Mahakaal clears his throat, waves his hand before his chest to indicate: “No.”
“He’s actually checking who’s coming in, which car has done how many kilometers, who owns the tempo that carries the regular maal from the market to the central kitchen… he’s got the numbers. Worse, he’s telling me what to do. He. I take orders from only Bapurao. Hm…Bapurao hasn’t called.”
Mahakaal is silent.
The NFL empire runs by word of mouth; Mahakaal has whispered in Kabra’s ears: “We get news even from the marketing offices in Mumbai. Boys who live on the station, outside the station, we employ them by the day, the hour. They’re cheap. A vada pao is enough payment. They’re illiterate but dependable; they do odd jobs, listen, quote numbers, names.”
One sleepy summer afternoon, when no train was expected, Ambadass roars at Mahakaal: “I wasn’t called for breakfast last Sunday.” Breakfast “meetings” at Bapurao’s house are sullen affairs, punctuated by the drone of a remark or two, opportunities for personal exchanges. Politics is discussed, tea is slurped; money is discussed, snacks munched. Manipulation planned, colorful pills are swallowed. Smiles are reserved, given in small, occasional, measured quantities, doses to boost the spirits, like when the grandchildren are around. No one can say “no” to anything they ask for. Discipline is restricted to touching the toes of elders, saying prayers, and eating vegetarian food. When they are of age, a school will be established for them; they will be the class monitors, prefects. They will win prizes, be groomed to be obeyed, to bend rules, twist the government’s arm. Like their fathers, they will be dependent on NFL until the end of their lives, watched over by the likes of Ambadass.
Kabra finds that fascinating. He keeps Bapurao busy, Ambadass at bay, and Mahakaal in his clutches. Mahakaal continues to tell Kabra more khabar: “When Bapurao’s wife died, his sons and their families felt more relief than grief; she had been bedridden for many years. Bapurao is afraid that might happen to him. He keeps us happy because we will look after him, if they don’t.”
“Kabra-sir,” Mahakaal advises. “Don’t wear a watch. Come in at 7 a.m., and stay on till Bapurao calls it a day. Clocks are not allowed in the office. Holidays? There are none. Weddings, births, deaths, NFL pays for them.” And then: “No coffee or tea in the office. Only milk from the company’s own gao-shala. No liquor, no soft-drinks. Women workers wear salwar-kameez. No pants.”
Mahakaal loves excitement: he gets withdrawal symptoms if he doesn’t run against time, break rules…. Cheating on Ambadass gives him a thrill.
Ambadass interrupts Mahakaal’s thoughts abruptly: “I will handle this Kabra.”
The next day, some computers give trouble. The systems’ chap stands by helplessly as a pandit does a pooja. Prayers are compulsory before it is restarted. Ambadass nudges Mahakaal: “Kabra is making an ishaara, a sign to that systems chap. I’m reporting him to Bapurao.”
Mahakaal has learnt from Kabra to “Document everything. You can write. Note down, events, incidents, accidents, accounts. Word of mouth, honor, that’s important. But memory can change. People change.” Mahakaal has written, hidden proof of Ambadass’ doings: pilfering diesel, getting cuts from vendors to have their cheques cleared, getting reimbursement of unused tickets.
Ambadass scoffs at Kabra, standing there: “These management-types, if they knew so much about business, they would have built an empire like this. They do the ghulami. Bapurao, a simple village man, eats simple food, lives in the same place he was born in, hasn’t been to a fancy college. He’s like us, basically smart. These computers, can they do our job?”
Thinks Mahakaal: “the men behind the computers… they can.” But he keeps quiet.
On Independence Day, at the early-morning flag-hoisting ceremony in the grounds opposite the main factory, the staff comes to collect their gifts: shiny steel made-in-China flasks. The duo is absent, Kabra notices, but no one asks about them. Their relationship, like the blastula stage of an embryo, is convoluted, contorted, entwined, yet orderly and defined. This foetus, though, won’t mature into a baby, but remain in a state of perpetual pregnancy, with the accompanying dis-ease, dis-comfort.
Bapurao claims loudly, proudly, in his speech: “No one has ever been thrown out of NFL, though many deserve to be.” No mention is made of the secretary who had hanged herself. She had entered whilst he was eating and “ruined his appetite.” He had screamed at the peon to throw away his meal. She fell out of favor, took the easy way out. There are others like her, suffering in a rancid atmosphere, Mahakaal tells Kabra.
That afternoon, Mahakaal gets bold, asks Kabra about the telephone bill that Ambadass has received.
“Yes,” says Kabra, “he will have to pay.”
Ambadass is livid. “I will make the bastard pay for the office space that he’s occupying, the chair and table… and this bill, Mahakaal, till then, you pay, ok?”
“Pay, yaar, you’ll get it back. I’ll give you next month.”
Mahakaal doesn’t believe him, doesn’t want to pay. He uses a tactic that works everywhere, every time: Flattery.
“Ambadass, this Kabra fellow doesn’t know what he up against. He has to go. We’ll think it over. You’re stressed, Bhai. Tell you what, let’s go for a ride on the 9:20 Fast. It will cool us. And then I’ll treat you to omelette-pao.”
No one knows what happened; Ambadass is not seen again. As always, Mahakaal is quiet.
Days later, he sits in Ambadass’ place, next to the dog, painting her nails red with the bottle that is now less than half full. She doesn’t give him a paw as easily and whines intermittently. He strokes her.
“Where’s Ambadass?” Bapurao himself asks Mahakaal.
“Don’t know. Haven’t seen him.”
“You don’t know where he’s gone?”
“No.” Then offers: “He isn’t answering his phone.”
Ambadass’ body is found near Bhusawal.
“Sad,” some say. “Unfortunate. He must have bent out to get the breeze on his face.” They sit next to Mahakaal, offering him comfort. He gently places the dog on his lap, continuing to groom her like Ambadass did. She has stopped pining for Ambadass. She turns up her liquid eyes and glistening nose, then licks him affectionately.
Mahakaal’s inherited Ambadass’ mantle: he knows just what to do. The telephone bill that Kabra was forcing him to pay, he will tell everyone, is what drove Ambadass to his death. Kabra must go, will go. Mahakaal will report to Bapurao.
Mahakaal takes a deep breath and draws the dog closer.
Shilpa Agarwal: The writer of this story created a gritty, dog-eat-dog world, depicting the ugly collision of traditional and modern ways of doing business in a small railway town. It was a compelling study of class issues, power struggles, and the darker side of human nature.
Ronica Dhar: I loved this story for the impeccable job it does with setting; the writer has not only fully imagined a particular time and place (and confluence of characters) but also executed that vision very well. Indeed, the themes here are so various and rich, I’d love to see this story as a novel!
Sheela Jaywant is a columnist for Gomantak Times, a Goan newspaper. She is a published and award winning author.