Here is the story of an unscrupulous person sans any sense of responsibility and discipline... who wants quick money for an easy life... and goes on to strike it... Ed.
Silver drops shot down from a slate coloured sky, swirling up black dust. Abhishek and Poonam sat down to a breakfast spread of hot charcoal grilled littis, luscious baingan bharta, and chai. The morning was redolent with the smell of rain soaked earth, spicy food and elaichi-adrak chai. But Abhishek appeared worried, as he had been for the past few months. He shook open Awaz and saw the headline, Swayambhu Shivalinga. It reported of a self-manifested Shivalinga in Dhansar. His eyes widened and moved from side to side as he read it. He rushed over to the phone to dial Swamiji’s number. Poonam curiously picked the newspaper. “At the beginning of the sacred month of saavan,” she exclaimed, “what could be more auspicious than a Shivalinga appearing on its own, rising through the earth!”
Abhishek jubilantly told her that Swamiji had said that a Roodrabhisheka, performed elaborately with eleven litres sugar cane juice would enhance his income manifolds and take care of all his financial troubles. Swami had reassured, “Ahhaa, an auspicious Monday, the tritiya of saavan, Lord Shiva is in the Kailash and he will be supremely pleased. Gupta jee, all your bank problems will evaporate.”
Residents of Dhanbad started calling up their friends and relatives in Jharia and told them of the report. Dhansar became to them, the new religious omphalos and everyone wanted to pay the deity a visit.
Jharia soaked the spray of rain, and the story, emitting black dust and smoke. Coal-dusted leaves, washed green, breathed through the miasma that engulfed the living, dead and dying of Jharia. Jharia asked Dhansar of the excitement. Being its close neighbour and age old friend, Dhansar whispered back. Jharia was disappointed but in its hollow heart it had always known. It wished it could stop breathing through its fire filled lungs. It wished its breath stopped rising in curls of smoke through its scalded skin. But it had realised that holding its breath resulted in a fit of cough which shook its burning remains and fell houses of men, women and children. It heaved its chest to fill in as much rainwater as it could. Cool, fresh water relieved it momentarily of its own charring heat. It hoped that the water filled the fissures in its heart.
Awaz had declared that the appearance of a Swayambhu Shivalinga so close to Jharia would save people from the coalfield fires, burning since the early seventies. By now, the mid-eighties, this fire had engulfed Jharia underground so much so that smoke could be seen rising from cracks on the roads. Buildings had started caving in. Harmful gases were causing lung and skin diseases. The temperature of the little town had continued to rise, making life very uncomfortable.
Mining had begun in Jharia in the late nineteenth century. In the fifties and sixties, before the government had taken over, a number of businessmen had made fortunes. Many experts were of the opinion that negligence in underground mines had started the fire. Ruthless businessmen had neglected the standard procedures of filling up these cracks with sand. Measures to douse it, by bulldozing, levelling and covering by soil were proving ineffective. These coalfields supply excellent quality bituminous coking coal, endlessly feeding the fire.
Poonam Agrawal’s father and grandfather had made their wealth in the coalfield too. The Agrawals lived in the most beautiful bungalow in Grewal Colony, close to the Bekar Bandh talab. It was a miniature of the White House – a grand structure with a number of huge glass windows. The garden was a circular sheet of green grass, encircled by three beds of the finest roses and three alternating beds of seasonal flowers. Each leaf in the garden would be washed every day by the sixty eight year old gardener, Reddy, who charged seven hundred a month other than shelter and food.
This is where Abhishek had first seen Poonam. The families had been good friends and the youngsters had met a few times. On the occasion of the Agrawals’ wedding anniversary, after careful deliberation, Abhishek had decided to marry Poonam. It had been the combined effect of the garden, Poonam’s expensive jewellery, and imported liquor. Abhishek’s father, Mr RK Gupta had been posted as the sales tax commissioner in Dhanbad and was one of Mr Agrawal’s more eminent friends. After a quiet but quick meeting with his son, Mr Gupta had approached Mr Agrawal.
Poonam had been an ordinary looking young girl with spectacles. At that time she had also worn braces. Her father’s wealth, however, had made her impossibly attractive to both the senior and junior Gupta alike.
He had thought inwardly, “How the delicate pink of her clothes contrasts with her unattractive complexion. Is she darker than I thought? Her braces make her mouth so un-kissable.” But Abhishek had put on his best smile and well-practised careless gait before greeting her, “You are looking lovely, madam. It is very difficult to say, which is more beautiful, the saree or you.”
Blushing, Poonam had lisped through her braces, “Hi! Thank you. Daddy got it from Calcutta. How are you? When did you come from Patna?”
He had complimented her on her lovely long hair and touched her kundan jhumkas making her breathless. He had told of the girls he had met, “You know, Poonam, girls have always come after me. I never found anyone desirable. I am waiting for my dream-girl – a coy, simple, Hindustani girl, unaware of her own beauty. Look at you. Has anyone ever told you, your eyes are so beautiful, men would want to drown in them,” and had fixed his gaze on Poonam’s face. She blushed. Then Abhishek made his killer move and crooned “Huzoor is kadar bhi na itraa ke chaliye” in the party, stealing glances at Poonam. Poonam, who had been ignorant of the charms of a handsome young man, and convinced of her own ugliness, had been enchanted. She had run to her room twice to check her saree and fix her mascara. Female vanity had taken over and Poonam Agrawal had begun to fall for the handsome Abhishek Gupta, unmistakably mistaking his carefully executed plot for love.
Mr Agrawal too had found Abhishek Gupta, a handsome third year student at the Patna engineering college very eligible as a prospective son-in-law.
People had talked of the match for days. Agrawal’s friends thought he had caught a super son-in-law who was going to be an engineer, a degree awed and respected by progressive business families who looked at education as a status symbol. Also, they had all sought Mr Gupta’s favours from time to time. Gupta’s friends, in turn, had ogled at the size of Agrawal’s business and thought it was Gupta who had struck the deal of his life. Poonam’s grandfather had been an asthma patient and Mr Agrawal had been very worried about his father’s worsening ailment. He had proposed an early marriage, for a death in family would have postponed the wedding by one whole year.
Poonam and Abhishek had got married as her sick grandfather had wheezed, coughed and blessed them through the wedding. He had sensed his impending death. And he had often heard a chilling whisper which others couldn’t hear. Why should I be the only one to breathe fire? Why should I be the only one with a hollow heart? I was full of coal and now your safes are full of gold. We’ll burn together. Within two weeks of Poonam’s bidaai, her grandfather breathed his last.
Abhishek had always been used to the easy greasy money his father made in hefty bribes. A wealthy father-in-law only made him dream of bigger and easier money. In college, he had been managing with bare pass marks and now having struck the gold, or shall we say, coal-mine, he had stopped attending lectures altogether. The college authorities had subsequently barred him from taking his exams because of low attendance. He had announced to both families that he had never intended on doing a nine-to-five job anyway, and wanted to set up a business. Mr Gupta had been unhappy and had tried to bribe the principal and the director of the college unsuccessfully. Having seen that he could neither convince Abhishek, nor change the college authorities’ decision, he accepted his son’s fate.
The Agrawals partly financed a sanitary-wares and bath-fittings shop in Rajendra Market in Bankmore, the commercial heart of the district. The rest of the finances came from a bank loan. Mr Agrawal became the guarantor. The father-in-law’s contacts, goodwill and business acumen had made sure that Abhishek procured the best goods at the cheapest, and enjoyed high credit limits from dealers. And the father’s powerful connections had helped him get big contracts, like BCCL offices, guest houses, CMRI scientists’ quarters and big hotels.
Business had flourished. Poonam had found herself going to Calcutta every week for shopping and beauty services. They had vacationed in Kathmandu and Darjeeling and Abhishek had got her jewellery almost every second month. The rent of their big house on Luby Circular Road was five thousand rupees and they had employed a maid, a cook, a gardener and a driver for their big family – of two members. She had been used to riches and had never been a keen student. Marriage gave her the perfect opportunity to quit studies and spend mindlessly on shopping, going to the cinemas, kitty partying and visiting beauty parlours. Abhishek himself would throw big parties where alcohol flowed freely and people gambled incessantly. Although he realised more than once that this was more than what he could afford, it was impossible for him to lead a simpler life. Flights to Kathmandu, long drives to Ranchi, dinners at the Skylark restaurant, Raymonds suits for himself and expensive sarees and jewellery for Poonam were things he could not cut down on.
Abhishek had employed two salesmen, a cashier and a manager. As time progressed, Abhishek started taking the shop lightly and depending heavily on his staff. And just as we have seen earlier, honest hard work was beneath him, and he did what he had done at college. He would neither go to the shop regularly nor bother to check the books. The staff became undisciplined too, opening the shop at their own convenience and announcing it shut when it suited them.
Clients would come to the shop for new orders, enquiries or quotations. They would invariably get the same response, “Gupta sahib is out. Please come back later.” The suppliers too met with the same response. They felt humiliated at being made to wait or asked to “come back later” each time they sought payment for their goods. The staff had eventually realised that there was no one to check them and had started stealing money.
Due to negligence, the sale and goodwill of the business had been affected. This reflected in the turnover in the bank accounts. The account and payments became irregular. The bank started sending reminders through registered post. When this did not have the desired effect, the manager personally paid a visit to tell him that he was a defaulter and if he did not begin repayment of the loan at the earliest, the bank would be forced to file a case. Now Abhishek had panicked, and had pawned a few of Poonam’s jewels and repaid teeny amounts of the loan.
After Abhishek had pawned jewellery quite a few times, Poonam had found most of her jewellery boxes in the safe empty. Upon confrontation, Abhishek had lied glibly that he had pawned them to get bigger loans. As the business had been getting bigger, he had wanted to expand it and had needed more money. Although she felt uneasy and fairly angry that he had pawned her jewellery without consulting her, Abhishek managed to fool her again.
The loan was getting bigger and the jewellery insufficient to cover it. However, Abhishek convinced himself that he had averted the danger for the time being and decided against informing his father or father-in-law of the situation. But the bank notices started giving him sleepless nights.
Like many troubled people, he had got to know of a very famous Swamiji and had become a devotee. Swamiji had consulted his horoscope, made calculations, meditated and announced, “Shani sadhesaati has been the cause of all your troubles in the past. The good things would turn unfavourable too in such inauspicious period. But the sadhesaati is about to end soon. Your troubles will disappear like drops of water on a hot tava!” and clicked his fingers to demonstrate the smoothness with which he foretold the end of his problems. As Abhishek had worn a ring made from an iron shoe of a black horse and his religious offerings had grown, but the loan had kept burgeoning, and the bank had never budged. As for Shani, it was difficult to tell.
The next day, Poonam applied maroon lipstick, kohl, lots of compact (the kind that promises fairness) and sindoor in the middle parting of her oiled hair. She wore a maroon matka-silk saree, kolhapuri chappals and heavy gold jewellery. She adjusted her big round glasses. The bright line of her sindoor and the long drop shaped bindi on her forehead created something of an exclamation mark. At six in the morning, husband and wife, in the back seat and Swamiji and the chauffer in the front of their white Ambassador car, drove off to Dhansar. The boot was full of Ganga-jal, cow’s milk, and eleven litres of sugarcane juice in big canisters, incense, ghee, flowers, fruits, coconut and sweets.
Three hours of pouring the milk, juice, Ganga-jal and flowers amid sacred chants of “Om trayambakam yajamahe sugandhim pushti vardhanam…” etc followed by a havan and aarati gave a deep satisfaction to Abhishek as he touched the Swami’s feet before accepting the prasad. He could feel that God had heard him and accepted his offerings. He was sure his problems would take care of themselves. He bought some lottery tickets. He was certain some good news was awaiting him the next day.
Midway between Dhanbad and Jharia, Dhansar silently watched the proceedings.
But the next day, Abhishek received orders from the civil court that Mr Agrawal’s bungalow would be auctioned if he failed to repay the loan. The bank had filed a case. Scared and helpless, he broke the news of the impending auction to his father who had to clutch at the table when he heard the sum of the outstanding loan. The two went to Mr Agrawal. Mr Agrawal was aghast and furious. Hysterical, he kept demanding to know why he hadn’t been informed earlier. Abhishek only sat mute, his handsome face looking demoralised, foolish and weak. For once in his life he was at a loss to say something smooth and charming. Mr Agrawal’s heart sank when his lawyer told him that he did not have enough liquidity to cover the loan. With dread he too realised that the bungalow would be auctioned off.
On the fifteenth day of the appearance of the Shivalinga, the court held an auction of Mr Agrawal’s bungalow with everything in it to cover a loan of fifteen lakhs. The Agrawals and Guptas looked on, helpless. Poonam, dressed in a plain cotton saree, without make-up and jewellery saw her handsome husband, as if for the first time.
What Dhansar had whispered to Jharia on that rainy morning would appear in Awaz a few days later.
Headlined, “The Channa Scandal”, the story reads “…the group of pundits who had discovered the shivalinga had gone about publicizing it, collecting money to build a temple. As the excavation began, construction workers found sacks full of Bengal grams about three weeks old, buried in the earth. The ground had been freshly dug up and the Shivalinga had been placed carefully on the top of these sacks. The saavan rains soaked the grams which began germinating and pushed the ‘Swayambhu’ up…”
Jharia hollers to Lord Shiva. But it knows in its fissured heart and smoke filled lungs that it can’t offer abode to the God whose sojourn is in the snow filled Kailash.