He felt the fresh air sift through the vestibule. He bent down to peek through the double glassed tinted window separating him from the pouring rain and the vast stretching landscape. He fished into his shirt pocket for his packet of Cigarettes. He opened the pack to find two cigarettes left. He picked up one and started to light. He decided not to do so, considering the closed doors of the AC compartment. The fresh air came as a welcome change from the stifling artificially monitored atmosphere. He always felt stifled by the closed AC compartments, yet he always traveled AC 1st class. It did give him the necessary privacy and the additional time to work. Well he couldn’t afford to travel in anything else. He was Amit Deshmukh….The Amol Deshmukh…owner of half of the country’s annual budget plan. He was rich, famous and a very important man.
He moved further across the vestibule, purely based on curiosity or possibly the childhood desire to travel the traverse of the train and watch its entire spine turn. The train was sparsely occupied.
The remote countryside destination had not reached the levels of popularity in the touristic circles. But Amol could see the value of the place far beyond what is seen through the amateur DSLRs. He was looking for a site for his expansion plan. This factory would cater for the growing demand for his product. He always called it the OH revolution. And he was the king of the “spirits”.
Lost in his thought he never noticed that he had crossed over another vestibule and entered the 2nd class sleeper compartment. Realization dawned on him as the strong gust of wind mixed with spray of water hit his face. It was rejuvenating. He paused to light his cigarette. It was proving to be a difficult task considering the heavy wind that blew into the train through the door. He drew a long drag from his cigarette, savouring the smoke filling his lung, mixing into his blood stream and numbing his senses. One more cigarette and he promised he would quit. But right now it was serving the purpose as it transported him away from the everyday grind. Away from the dreary financial details of their investment plan that his staff was working on, back there in the AC 1st class.
The gaping door of the train inviting him to it. He gingerly moved towards it. It had been some time since he had hung over the open door screaming at the wind, which tore at his face to match his passion.
That was a long time ago. He had grown up and there was so much at stake.
He glanced at the coach. It was deserted. The empty coach rattled, labouring unwillingly, as if unhappy with the lack of sponsorship. Amol found the solitude comforting. The warm cloak of anonymity, comforting him amidst cold and wet breeze. The solitude emboldening him to move closer to the door. Edging dangerously closer to very edge of the floor. He grasped the handle grip hard enough to make his knuckles turn white. He resolutely placed his foot against the door, making sure it did not close in on him.
Things were under control. That was the way he liked it.
He could hear his own heart beats over the din of the train playing a drum beat on the rail. He sheepishly looked around if anybody else could hear it too. The empty coach stared back at him. He smiled at himself. He was feeling increasingly comfortable, increasingly closer to himself. It was some time since he was alone with himself.
The tug on his sleeve startled him. he was sure he was alone. He looked around but couldn’t see anybody. The tug returned. This time on his trouser. He looked down to stare at a young boy casually sitting on the floor with his legs dangling beyond the edge. He must be in his early teens. He was casually dressed, albeit on the shabby side. A cap trying in vain to keep his overgrown hair from falling over his eyes.
His emotions moved from astonishment to irritation. Just when he had begun to enjoy his new found solitude, last thing that he expected was an unruly teenager to spoil the tranquility. He fumbled for his purse for some change to quickly get over the intrusion. He was irritated to find only 2000 rupee notes and he wasn’t sure if getting rid of this boy was worth as much in currency. His moment of indecision was interrupted by an irritating chuckle by the boy.
“Do you give money to everybody who tugs on your sleeve.” asked the amused boy.
Amol was infuriated. He arrived at his decision. 2000 rupees was worth spending. He took out the note and thrust it to the boy’s face. The boy looked up through his unkempt hair. The amused look stayed in his eyes. For an uncertain fleeting moment, the eyes felt familiar. He shook the note once more as if catching the boy’s attention to the denomination. It was an embarrassing. The boy turned to watch a passing bridge over a stream overflowing its banks. Amol had had enough of it. He fumbled with a single hand to put back the soaked currency note back into his purse as his other hand clutched the handle with great force. It wasn’t the way he had thought this would turn out to be. He was finding everything irritating. He was even bothered about the 2000-rupee note being drenched…an amount, almost insignificant. He was clearly enraged.
“Why don’t you sit down; it will be easier for you” said the boy without even turning. The boy’s candor and his audacity made Amol smile in disbelief. He managed to put the purse back into his pocket with the wet note before he asked the boy “What do you want from me if you don’t want the money?”
“Is that the only thing you can offer?” asked the boy. Amol searched the boy’s face for mischief. He could find none of it.
Amol felt embarrassed. He wanted his solitude back.
“Well, I don’t have much of the time”, snapped Amol finding no other way to get rid of the boy.
“Ahhh, Time. That I am sure you don’t seem to have enough” said the boy. “Come to think of it, I have plenty of that. And that too of good quality. Couldn’t I just sell that to you in exchange of the money you seem to have in plenty.”
Amol was in no mood for jokes. “You don’t seem to know who I am” he scorned. No response from the boy did not stop him from continuing his contemptuous introduction, “Half the world knows who I am and I presume you live in the other half.”
“I am Amol Deshpande” he said, with a practiced ease. It was line, which would invite laughter from his audience at the futility of such an introduction of a household name. However, there was no response from the boy as if it wasn’t enough introductions. “You wouldn’t dream of meeting me, let alone speaking to me.”
“I am Amol too” said the boy unmoved by Amol’s extravagant introduction “And I am sure I haven’t dreamt we would ever meet.”
He extended his hand saying “ Well nice meeting you.”
Amol shook his hand hesitatingly. He was surprised at the boy’s audacity. His hand was warm and the grip longer and friendier in contrast with the official ones he was accustomed to.
He suddenly was enjoying the company. Wasn’t this the exact anonymity he was looking for. He had longed to meet somebody who would meet him just because he was just another Amol and not ‘Amol Deshmukh – The Liquor Baron’
“Why don’t you sit down” offered the boy “it would be comfortable.”
Amol hesitatingly sat down. He shrugged thinking WHY NOT? The cover of anonymity allowing him to shed the inhibitions attached to the persona of Amol Deshmukh. He was just plain Amol just like the boy. He could do anything.
“Since you are such a famous person” asked the boy, “you must have many friends.”
Amol started to list his partners or the Facebook followers, but he wasn’t sure if that is what the boy meant.
The boy went on “…friends you play with. The friends you are happy with. I have a lot of friends with whom I play.”
“No, there was no body” Amol could confidently answer the rephrased question. He felt a nostalgic tinge for all his close friends from his humble beginning. Those were the friends he played with. They were the ones he felt happy with. He was amused and surprised at using the same words the boy had used to describing his own friends.
“Why do you smile if you don’t have any friends?” asked the boy interrupting Amol’s reverie.
“I just remembered my friends of the childhood days.”
“Where are they now?” enquired the boy.
Amol wasn’t sure how to answer that. Neither did he care. He only had business partners or friends of convenience. The only game he played was power games.
The boy seemed to sense Amol’s reverie. He changed the subject.
“Where are you going?”
“Well me and my collegues are headed to Begampur”, answered Amol feeling relieved of the change in subject.
“Begampur!!? That’s my village. It’s a beautiful place. I am sure you would love the stay.”
“Why are going there?” asked the boy turning to face Amol.
Amol stared into the excited eyes for a moment. The eyes bored all the way to his soul. He looked away a fraction too late he feared. He was afraid. Amol Deshmukh was afraid of this frail non-existent boy in front of him.
It all started not so long ago.
Everything had gone as per plan. He was an instinctive hunter. He knew what to use as the bait, what would hurt and when to move in for the kill. He had earned his reputation to be ruthless.
The modus operandi remained the same, although the stakes had gone higher and the means were more devious.
The land was easily available at villages at the fringes of civilization. The resources were in plenty with nobody to share it with. The hunting team identified the man who called the shot, who they could negotiate with. The man was pampered, seduced into seemingly favorable deal. The man was forced to sell his soul and in turn was coerced to sell the diabolic idea to his followers. The land and their life assets changed hands on flimsy threads of fake trust. If ever the leader did find out the folly, it was too late. He would be too deep in the mire. He was an accomplice to the crime. He dreaded the consequence of the rest knowing the truth. The truth was far uglier to him and the consequences far more dreadful to him.
“Well if you don’t want to tell me that’s fine. You seem to hide a lot of things.” said the boy, bringing Amol back from his reverie.
Once again his voice seemed to slice through Amol’s thoughts. It appeared to echo from within, invading the fortress of solitude he had created for himself. His insulated space had been breached. It irritated him somehow.
“We are setting up a large scale production centre” said Amit trying to not react to the irritation “with the state of art automated bottling plant.”
Amol felt awkward about his urge to glorify his business as a noble cause.
“The project will bring jobs to the people of your village. It will raise your standards of living. We will provide you better place to stay. The place will be known to everybody in the world…”
“But our village is already the best place in the world” interjected the boy. “We have the fields that are green and bountiful. We have the stream that are full throughout the year. We have abundance of laughter in every house.”
Amol hesitated to interrupt the boy but he did not have the heart to tell the boy that the factory was looking to tap into these these very resources. He shuddered at the very thought and irony.
Amol sat next to the boy. His feet dangling beyond the foot rest just as the boy’s. He was no longer worried about his expensive clothing as it got drenched and dirty. He sat there as if he was once again a ten-year-old. He left happy and free. Irony seem to return with the vengeance. The boy was giving him a peak into his long forgotten childhood just when he was on his way to rob the same from the boy.
“… We walk all the way to the school, playing and fighting” the boy continued blissfully unaware of the impending doom. “We love our school. Patil master ji does so much to make us feel comfortable. But there are things even he can’t do.”
“Why? Whats wrong?” enquired Amol.
“The rooms are so dark and there is no electricity.” answered the boy in a matter of fact manner. “The building is crumbling which makes it safer to be outside in the open.”
The boy became pensive as though experiencing the discomfort.
As an afterthought he asked, “Can you fix that?”
Amol was speechless as he was confronted by the merciless irony. He was saved from the trouble as the boy continued as if he never needed any answers.
“… but we have a lot of fun in the open ground. And you must see the rock that is there at the pond. We jump from the rock and make merry in the pond after the school to beat the heat.”
“You know even I used to have a pond at our village where I used to play with my friends” said Amol remembering his own childhood. “…and there was a story of a killer crocodile which lived at the very depth of the pond. We were all afraid of it till one of the elder boys… oh, I forget his name…oh yes, Dilip dived deep and searched for the killer beast.”
“And, you know what?” smiled Amit remembering the past, “he had a frenzied fight with a piece of log which really looked like a dead crocodile (at least to our young eyes full of fantasy). He dramatically killed the beast. The jubilant kids danced and celebrated the conquest.”
Both the Amols laughed heartily together.
“Hey, this guy Dilip must have been a real hero” asked the boy.
“Who Dilip?” asked Amol.
“The guy who killed the crocodile” prompted the boy, “You talked of him just now”.
“Ahhh..Oh yeah, Dilip …yes, he was a hero.” Amol suddenly felt guilty of not knowing where Dilip was. He never cared to remember.
“Where is he now?” asked the boy not letting go.
“Dilip?…eh..Well, I don’t Know?” replied Amol almost apologetically. There were so many memories which flooded his mind. Names and faces of the young gang at his village haunted and prodded at his guilt even more. His eyes welled up with mixed emotions of nostalgia and guilt.
And they chatted on, sharing stories of their lives. One talking about the present while the other talked about the past. Both, talking about the childhood they savored. One who had lost it long time ago to the daily grind and the other, who was about to lose it to the vice of the world. They were oblivious of the surrounding…alone and free, enjoying the new found friendship, relieved of the shackles of the make believe world.
“… Mr Deshmukh!”
The call of his own name jarred him off the bliss of anonymity. It was one of his staff. They must’ve come looking for him.
He got up apologizing to the boy saying that he will returned in a minute. He did not want any of his staff to break this spell.
Mr Dixit was almost at the vestibule when Amol met him enroute. Mr Dixit was an accountant when Amol had started as a young entrepreneur long time ago. He had earned himself Amol’s trust to be one of the major decision makers in the company. He was known to have earned his place in the core group of the Company due to his meticulous and business accumen.
“Where have you been Mr Deshmukh?” enquired Mr Dixit “We have been looking for you.”
“Well I was just sitting and having a chat with this young boy.” said Amol trying to end the conversation.
Mr Dixit frowned to convey that he was unconvinced.
“What do you mean? Which boy?” asked Dixit, now clearly worried.”
“That boy sitting at the door” exclaimed Amol as he was beginning to get irritated with Mr Dixit’s mode of enquiry
“There is no boy at the door!”, Mr Dixit was calm as he tried to hide his concern.
Amol turned around. The boy wasn’t there.
Amol stood there staring at the gaping door. The rain had stopped. The landscape glittered in bright new sunshine. Droplets fell from the door opening at the place where the boy had been sitting. It had formed a puddle. It mirrored the green fields washed clean by the rain.
Amol smiled and turned. He started to walk towards his coach.
“Where is he?” asked Mr Dixit as he followed Amol. “ I can’t see anybody.”
Amol wondered as he smiled…
“Who was telling the story? And whose story was it anyway? “
The words fluttered and flew in the wind.
“He is there, Mr Dixit, he is there” mumbled Amit, without looking back. I know it, because I had left him there a long time ago. He is there. He has always been there.”
“But…” Mr Dixit protested.
“We have lot to do” said Amol in a business like manner. “How much will it cost for the electrification of the Begampur Village?”
“Er…um, we never planned for that” mumbled Mr Dixit in astonishment.
“Then lets plan for it” said the two Amols in unison.