Shalan opened her eyes.
Her head was throbbing. She sat up on the bed and looked out the window.
It was 6 am. The sky was still black, just like the darkness that had engulfed her life.
Silence reigned in the house. Exhaustion and sleep had overtaken grief at some point of time in the night.
She look at her children lying next to her. They didn’t stir.
There was no sound from her in-laws’ bedroom, except the snores of her mother-in-law.
She tiptoed out of the children’s bedroom to hers. The sight of her empty bed brought a fresh wave of tears, but she controlled herself.
She opened the cupboard and extracted a file from deep within her shelf. It contained her school and college certificates, references from previous employers and her resume, all untouched in the last fifteen years.
Shalan would need them. She was the provider and protector of her family now.
She sat on the bed for a moment and wondered how things would have turned out, had Pramod still been around.
She knew the answer. For she was aware that Pramod had saved them all, by taking his own life.
“The priest is here.”
Mrs. Shalan Jadhav looked up at the young man speaking to her. Her tear-stained face was expressionless.
Shalan was sitting on the floor, holding her two kids close to her. All three of them were sobbing uncontrollably. In front of them lay the man they loved the most, his lifeless form covered in a white sheet. On the other side of the man sat his parents. While his mother kept caressing his hair, as if he was merely asleep, his father was staring vacantly into space, his fading memory somehow grasping the truth.
Neighbours, friends and relatives had crowded the house. Some of the ladies sat with the bereaved family, providing silent strength. The others, mostly women, were scattered around the place, occupying the sofa, sundry chairs and window ledges, or simply standing. Many were standing in the passage and on the staircase of the second floor flat. The men thronged the building compound, leaving barely any open space.
Pramod was a popular man. But all the goodwill he had earned in his forty-five years on earth couldn’t prevent his being snatched away by his Maker.
Shalan had broken into a loud wail when the grim news had reached home. “Madam,” the caller from the police station had said, as softly as he could, “please check your messages. We have sent you a photograph of a man we found on the railway tracks.”
The police had been kind. The photo showed only his face, the one part of his entire physical form that had remained unmutilated by the speeding train.
Shalan’s mother-in-law had hobbled into the room, alarmed by her scream. One look at the frail eighty-year-old and Shalan had silenced herself. She had to be strong. For the woman who had brought him into this world after fifteen years of treatment and prayers. For the nonagerian who had moulded his only son into an upright, responsible man with a big heart. For the two girls who adored him as their Superman.
Everything after that was a blur. Neighours had helped her through the endless formalities and paperwork that were required to get him released and bring him home.
All her self-control couldn’t help Shalan when the ambulance had finally arrived at her doorstep. She had broken down and was crying inconsolably, till the priest arrived.
The sight of the lean, old dhoti-clad man caused a fresh wave of cries and wails. “Who will perform the rites?” he asked, looking around.
The crowd looked at Pramod’s father, who sat like a zombie, oblivious to everything else.
“I will,” said Shalan. She ignored the wide-eyed, open-mouthed stares that followed.
Despite her grief and the loud chants of the priest, Shalan’s sharp ears were catching tidbits of gossip from a few bored relatives who had turned up only as a matter of courtesy.
“He was so young!”
“Suicide, they say. How irresponsible! With aged parents and daughters to be married off! What will happen to them now?”
“Coward he was! Ditching his family..,.”
“He wasn’t a coward.” Shalan’s determined voice took everyone by surprise.
She turned to face the offender. “And he wasn’t irresponsible.”
She turned back to the priest and said, with a newfound determination, “Please continue.”
The chants were the only sound in the room for the next twenty minutes.
Pramod knew he was cornered. He was damned if he spoke the truth and damned if he didn’t.
His hand absentmindedly reached into his pockets and pulled out a little piece of paper. On it was written:
It wasn’t me. It was Neel. I’d found his movements suspicious and followed him.
Don’t get yourself into this mess.
Once you are trapped by the rich and famous, there is no way out.
They were Anukool’s last words, although in writing, before his body was fished out of the local river.
In those three lines, Pramod saw a grim solution to his problems. He walked away from the police station to the railway station.
His heart beseeched him to go home and spend a little more time with his loved ones, but he knew he couldn’t face them. So he walked on.
Instead of reaching the railway platform, Pramod approached a secluded spot near the tracks.
His hands shook as he wrote a note, blaming no one for his fate. He placed it neatly, next to his bag. The whistle of a speeding train alerted him. He willed himself with all his might to move forward and lay in its path on the tracks. He shut his tear-filled eyes tight and prayed to God to forgive him and take care of his family.
A few seconds later, it was all over. His family was safe now.
Shalan, in the meantime, was praying at home that all would go well at the hearing and her Pramod would remain unharmed. She had no idea that Pramod would never approach the Court again. Her mind kept replaying the events of that morning.
Pramod stared at the receding forms of the two men as they made their way to the end of the street, turned the corner and disappeared.
He had seen a lot of power games at play in the last few days, but this twist was totally unexpected. And it appeared to be the most dangerous of them all.
“You’re thinking right.”
The voice made him turn around. It was Shalan.
Pramod smiled, despite his dark mood. He knew she’d heard everything. He knew she’d read his mind, just like she had done umpteen times in their twenty years of togetherness. And he knew she would offer a solution.
Sure enough, she said, “Go to the police. It may or may not help, but at least you will have tried.”
As Pramod reached the entrance of the police station, familiar voices halted him in his tracks. He went around and peered in through the window.
Thè two men who had visited him, were talking and laughing loudly along with the Police Inspector, like old buddies. Pramod saw his last sliver of hope fall apart.
He walked away slowly, his feet heavy. He was too soft a man to curse the people who were using him as a pawn to further their own needs. He wondered if the Malhotra and Mathur families would have been less ruthless had they not been rich and famous. Two rich businessmen, two big empires, two rivals rumoured to want to kill each other. And he worked for one of them.
Pramod wished his family had never answered the doorbell that morning.
The screaming alarm clock forced a sleepless Pramod to get out of bed.
The hearing was scheduled later that morning. Pramod was already exhausted by the events of the past fortnight. He wanted to get it all over with, but somehow he had the feeling that it wouldn’t be over soon.
He had no idea it wouldn’t be over till it was all over.
Just as he sat down for breakfast, the doorbell rang. He asked Shalan to answer it.
Two men from another department in his organisation were standing outside.
“Madam,” said one of them. “We would like to talk to your husband about the case.”
Shalan’s instincts warned her that it wasn’t something nice. Her stomach knotted in fear.
When Pramod sat with the two men in the living room, Shalan stood quietly behind the kitchen door, her sharp ears taking in every word of the hushed discussions.
“Mr. Pramod, we believe the hearing is scheduled at 11 am this morning,” said one of them.
“Tell me, Pramod, what benefit would you get from testifying at the hearing? You saw the pebbles in the fuel tank. You suspected your friend Anukool, who is now gone. It’s that big fat Malhotra who will earn points against his rival. You are merely a puppet.”
Any other occasion and Pramod would have been shocked when the men berated their own boss. But he had seen so much in the last two weeks that nothing surprised him anymore. He replied firmly, “Excuse me, I’m just doing my duty.”
“A duty that gives you nothing more than sleepless nights? Look at your baggy eyes. They say what you’re going through. Are you not being pressurised to say something at the hearing that is not the truth?”
Pramod stayed silent. These men were telling the truth. But why were they here?
The man continued, “What if you deny everything? You don’t lose. Malhotra doesn’t lose, either. But you will save the reputation of Mr. Mathur. He’ll be grateful. You’ll earn his goodwill. And he’s generous too.”
So they work for Mathur on the sly, thought Pramod. Money can buy your soul too.
“Your elder daughter needs funds for her higher education, right?” The other man spoke for the first time. “Not only that, you can take your father abroad to try that new cure for his dementia.”
Pramod was taken aback, as he understood what they were arriving at. He stammered, “B-but I’ve always been taught to be upright. Why should I sacrifice my values?”
The men turned on the offensive.
“You gain, Pramod.”
“The choice is yours, Pramod.”
“By the way, I hope you remember the case of Rajinder and Company. He had openly accused Mathur in the media.”
“You remember how Rajinder lost his house and entire family in that devastating fire?”
“Think about it, my dear. You have three hours.”
The men left. Pramod couldn’t help recollecting the events of the previous day.
“Pramod, Shankar has called you to his cabin.”
Pramod was puzzled. What did the Chief Personal Assistant to Mr. BKS Malhotra want?
Shankar offered him a seat, then came straight to the point without small talk.
“Pramod, we heard that you’re going to testify in court about the aircraft incident?”
“Well, as an esteemed employee of this organisation, we expect you to follow orders, right?”
“Right,” responded Pramod, wondering what Shankar was up to.
“So here is what you do. You will tell the court that Anukool, your friend and buddy, confided in you that he had done the deed at the behest of the Mathur group, in return for money. We all know that he was forever in need of money, right?”
“That’s agreed, then. You say what I said. Anukool is gone, anyway. You’re safe. And you’ll be rewarded.”
“B-but you’re asking me to lie. Anukool’s wife will lose his terminal benefits and the family’s reputation in society. I can’t do this.”
“Young man,” Shankar’s voice was soft, yet menacing, “you wouldn’t want anything to happen to your wife and two beautiful girls, do you?”
Pramod stared at him, aghast.
“That is all. You may go.”
Pramod had not imagined even in the wildest of his dreams, that his dream job would turn into a complete nightmare in just a week. And that he would be transformed overnight from a strong, silent man into a nervous wreck, trying in vain to escape unwanted media attention and vested interests.
His mind turned to Anukool. The man had escaped it all. No one would know the truth unless Pramod himself bared it all. And he was carrying the evidence in his pocket every single day.
A tear escaped his eye as he remembered his good old days with Anukool – the school trips together, the pranks they played together and their silent support to each other in trying times, through a friendship spanning more than forty years. All destroyed by the vested interests of one person. Neel, their supervisor at work.
“You heard the news?” Pramod was greeted by an excited colleague as soon as he entered office.
“They fished out Anukool from the canal nearby. Investigation says he jumped in there a week ago. Around the 25th.”
Pramod was dumbstruck. That meant Anukool had given his life on the very next day after the incident. The one that had turned his life topsy turvy. For a moment, his own problems faded into the background as he mourned the loss of a friend he had known from his diaper days.
He knew why Anukool had taken his life.
First, the betrayal by Neel. Then the disappearance of crucial CCTV footage and the media frenzy. The rumours. The allegations and counter allegations by two powerful businessmen against each other. A case. A hearing scheduled on the 10th. And now this.
Pramod applied for leave. He was refused.
Frustrated, he turned to Shalan.
“Don’t worry. You’ve been called to testify at the hearing, right? Go tell the truth. You have Anukool’s letter as evidence. Then return home and forget about it. The law may or may not take its course. But God will help us.”
Shalan was soon to learn that God’s ways of helping out were not always easy.
Pramod decided to take her advice, as he’d done in all the years he’d been married to her.
“First, you sabotage the aircraft. Then you try to shift the blame on Anukool. Next, you betray me to the media. Why? What are you gaining from this?”
“It doesn’t matter what I gain, Pramod, but if you tell the truth, you’ll lose. You love your family, don’t you?”
A stunned Pramod left Neel’s cabin and made his way home.
The media attention around Pramod that followed his revelation not only catapulted the shy, soft-spoken man to the headlines, but also destroyed his peace of mind and his family’s freedom and privacy. His wife and kids retreated to a self-imposed house arrest.
The media had gathered every little detail of his personal and family life and ensured that the nation knew it all.
Pramod realised he was paying the price for knowing too much. He had no idea how unaffordable it would get.
Every time he tried to call Anukool, his mobile phone was switched off. He finally went to his buddy’s house, only to be greeted by his pale, worried wife at the door.
“Anukool returned home last night and disappeared at midnight. Building security saw him go out. We’ve lodged a missing complaint.”
Pramod was stunned. He got an eerie feeling that things were murkier than they seemed. Very dirty indeed.
Anukool’s wife stopped him as he was leaving.
“Wait, I saw this envelope under his pillow. It’s addressed to you. I’ve not shown it to the police.”
Pramod opened it and took out a scrap of paper. On it was hastily scrawled:
It wasn’t me. It was Neel. I’d found his movements suspicious and followed him.
Don’t get yourself into this mess.
Once you are trapped by the rich and famous, there is no way out.
A grim sense of foreboding overtook Pramod as he made his way home.
He found the media waiting for him at his doorstep. He pushed his way through them and entered his flat, locking the door behind him.
He looked up to see a harried Shalan sitting on the sofa, holding their two children tight and comforting them.
All because he had trusted the wrong man – Neel.
Pramod woke up in the morning to find himself and Anukool all over the newspapers and television channels. The media was waiting outside his building, wanting to know more about the attempted sabotage.
The scene was enough to make Pramod understand that Neel had betrayed his trust. Which meant that Anukool was innocent.
He called Anukool, but his phone was switched off. He decided to avoid the media and stayed indoors all day, thankful for the comfort and support of Shalan. He wished he had not taken up the assignment the previous day and chosen to take the day off to celebrate his wedding anniversary instead.
Pramod went over to the fuel tank and opened it. A bunch of pebbles at the bottom of the tank greeted him.
Pramod was in a fix. He couldn’t believe that Anukool would have done this. At the same time, he knew that his friend was forever in need of money to sustain a lifestyle beyond his means and was not averse to selling his ideals and principles for it. He decided to keep silent for the time being and ask Anukool about it.
But he knew he had to report the pebbles, otherwise CCTV footage would call out his negligence. Pramod called his supervisor.
“Sir,” began Pramod. “There are pebbles in the fuel tank. They can damage the engine in mid flight.”
“What?” Neel appeared shocked. This is attempted sabotage. Bring on the CCTV footage!”
The screen showed Anukool hovering around the fuel tank, then looking in the direction of the camera and walking away, as if he had spotted someone. At the same time another camera showed Pramod coming into view, staring at Anukool. It was clear that Pramod’s arrival had scared Anukool.
“Sir, what about the footage before Anukool came there?”
Neel appeared surprised, but collected himself and said, “Oh, the security department has said it’s been corrupted by a virus.”
Pramod couldn’t understand if Neel was lying. He decided to give the benefit of doubt.
After a lengthy pause, he looked his supervisor in the eye and said, “Sir, I have nothing more to say. I would like to use our whistle blower policy and remain anonymous.”
“You can trust me, Pramod.”
And Pramod trusted him.
Life as an aircraft technician in one of the biggest business houses of the country was no easy task and required perfection at the highest level. The richest are usually not the most generous, yet Pramod managed to earn just enough to support his family. He thanked God for the budgeting skills of his wife.
It was yet another hectic day at work. Mr. BKS Malhotra, head honcho of the Malhotra group, was flying to Kolkata in the evening and Pramod was on his way to the workshop to check on his private plane.
He was in a not-so-great mood. It was his wedding anniversary, yet his supervisor had refused him permission to leave early.
He stopped in his tracks when he sighted Anukool near the fuel tank of the aircraft. He wondered what his friend was doing in the workshop, when he had a desk assignment that morning.
Of late, Pramod was having a lot to wonder about. There were reports in the media about a possible assassination attempt on Mr. BKS Malhotra by unknown insiders in return for large sums of money from the rival Mathur group. When Pramod tried to discuss this with Anukool over a lunch break, the latter had quickly changed the topic.
Anukool then started avoiding Pramod on some pretext or the other. When confronted, he appeared cold and distant, leaving Pramod perplexed.
Pramod had a feeling that Anukool knew too much and feared trouble. He wanted to help him out. After all, he owed his current job to his friend.
“Thank you, buddy. I owe you for getting me this job.”
“That won’t be necessary, Pramod. This was the least I could do to an old school friend.”
“No, Anukool. You don’t know how it is to be downsized overnight and stay jobless for six months.”
“The past is gone. You are now an employee of the prestigious Malhotra Group, the biggest in the country.”
“Just like you.”
“Okay, now that we’re in the same workplace, we’ll be seeing each other often. Buy me a coffee someday.”
“And no more worries!”
Neither of them was aware of what lay ahead – the twists of fate, the challenges, the betrayals and finally, the destruction.
This story is a work of fiction. All characters and incidents are a product of my imagination.
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