Nabanita Sengupta finds criminals lurking in the darkness of Ghumi woods
The note was placed on the boundary wall. Mr Roy’s eyes fell upon the unevenly torn piece of paper while he was leisurely slurping his customary morning tea. Even without looking at it closely, he knew what it was — a reminder of their previous demand. They wanted him to give them that preposterous sum of Rs 50 lakhs*! The note also carried a threat of dire consequences if the demand was not met within a stipulated time. The threat was reiterated by various blank calls and anonymous threats over the telephone. The second such note meant he could not ignore it for much longer. It would soon require some action on his part.
Ghumi was not always like this. In fact, it had been a sleepy township bound by rivulets and hills on both sides. Routine life that revolved around a single factory ensured a monotonous existence, safe and secure, though a tad boring. Mr. Roy was happy with the sedentary life he led. It was not excitement that he sought at this stage of life, but a bit of comfort. The discipline of a fixed routine offered that comfort. Yet when this sudden and undesirable matter presented itself, Mr. Roy knew he had the capability to deal with it.
Now that he thought, there had been signs. There always are. Nothing happens out of the blue. There is always a gestation period before the hatching. A more vigilant eye can discern the growing embryo of trouble. He too had felt the change; he could sniff it in the air but could not exactly pin it. Perhaps he could have done it once. Once when his senses were more alert and his body was more toned. That was the time when his reflexes were quicker than lightning. Agility had been his second nature. But that was almost a decade ago.
Ten years of civilian life had given him an increased girth and reduced agility, though that did not mean that he had lost all his capabilities. He still loved solving difficult sudoku puzzles and juggling his brain with tricky problems to retain his alacrity. He still exercised for at least about an hour, sweating himself out in a Spartan space in his backyard that doubled up as his gym as well as their occasional party room. He had to maintain certain basics, given the nature of his job.
During parties that he and his wife organised frequently, the room went through a complete transformation reflecting the theme of the gathering. At other times, pieces of furniture, crockeries, and many other items lay heaped in one part of their unused car shed. An old vespa scooter occupied the other part. That scooter was Roy’s favourite, his only mode of commuting within the township. In fact it had become his signature look — pleated trousers, formal shirt, blue helmet and the navy blue Vespa.
Incidentally, it was during one of his dinner gatherings that Mr. Roy had first sensed the storm brewing. He did not ignore it, but did not even attach too much importance to it at that time.
That was a party that he had thrown for the factory bosses. He and his wife often threw dinner parties. But they never mixed ranks of the invitees. They understood the way social classes operated in that world. Factory and its adjacent office ranks decided the social standings in the world of Ghumi. The Roys did not overstep that. Their dinner parties therefore always included a set of people with homogeneous social standings. That way hospitality became easier and the guests also felt more comfortable. Conversations could flow in a more uninhibited manner, that allowed him to pick up titbits that might be useful later. His military years had well taught him the meaning and importance of ranks, the fragile vanities associated with it.
That particular day, he was drawn by the unusually preoccupied demeanour of Mr. Iyer, the chief of the mechanical department of the factory. As he stood alone, lost in himself, in one of the quieter corners of the room, Roy casually moved towards him and struck a conversation.
“Hello Mr. Iyer! I am happy that you could manage to come.”
“Hello Roy! Yes, somehow.”
Iyer was again lost in his thoughts.
Roy prodded a bit more
“All is well I suppose? You don’t seem to be yourself today.”
“Ah! Yes, all seems okay, I don’t know, am not sure. Certain things are bothering me though I can’t exactly figure out why.”
“Your long association with this factory must have made you intuitive. It is better not to overlook your intuitions.”
Roy was not exactly sure why he said these, but somehow they seemed to be the right words to say. He did believe a lot in intuitions and his own intuitions had often served him well. But this was not something he publicly acknowledged. He preferred to maintain his public image as an extremely pragmatic individual, though actually he was an avid reader of signs. The signs always warned him if there was anything afoot.
After spending some more time with Mr Iyer, he moved towards other guests. But Iyer had given him food for thought. He now knew that those people had made inroads here too. This factory, which was the mainstay of a large thriving community was about to be caught in the throes of something far bigger and sinister. But that was a passing thought that had come to his mind then.
The threat note probably meant that those people were involved. But how could that be? He knew that one of their modes of operation was to demand ransoms and attempt blackmail. Yet, he found it a bit odd. Those people usually did not pick on small businessmen. The reason Roy had set up his own enterprise here on a very modest scale swas to avoid drawing attention and being the target. He wanted to wait and watch, unobserved. His becoming the target therefore could also mean his exposure. It was time for a bit of snooping around.
Prabhu, the labour union leader, knew how to read signs too. He too had felt the changes, silently but surreptitiously creeping along the factory walls. This factory was his closest kin. He had grown up with it, around it. So he could understand it much better. When the unknown faces started making regular appearances, he could sniff the perturbation in the air. It was like the fly ash, directly choking the air pipe and blocking the fresh air. Prabhu knew that the factory was doomed if something quick was not done.
Prabhu had observed Roy for the past twenty years. He had worked as his eyes and ears but somehow never stopped watching him. He knew about the threatening notes too and had instinctively felt it was the time to act.
The jungle had started thinning rapidly. The General Manager was losing sleep over it. There were timber thieves surely, but how could no one catch them! This factory, which surrounded a large part of the Hazaribagh range, had always nurtured the forest and its belongings — the rich flora and fauna. After taking over the reins of this establishment, Mr. Iyer had personally taken care of the natural bounty of this place. It was a case of love at first sight for him. The dense and vibrant green that housed so many creatures like hedgehogs, peacocks, boars, and various kinds of fowls and birds had appealed to the environmentalist in Iyer. Also, he knew that the only way to keep the community safe from the poisonous gas erupting from this factory was to cocoon them in thick foliage. But suddenly now, towards the end of his career, things were changing — changing probably for the worse.
He suddenly remembered Roy’s words, “better not to overlook your intuitions”. Was he right? Iyer had always seen this man a bit differently from the rest. He had always felt that Roy was not what he seemed to be. Yet, in spite of his doubts, or perhaps because of them, he felt more drawn towards that man. He promised to himself to cultivate a closer association with him.
But Mr. Iyer was not at all prepared when Roy burst into his office on a particularly frosty morning, dressed in nothing more than a light woollen sweater. Mr. Iyer had just entered his office clad in a heavy suede jacket and a monkey cap. His feet were covered in a pair of woollen socks inside the fire safety shoes that all employees of the factory had to wear, irrespective of their rank. Shoes in that sense was actually a great leveller in the otherwise layered society of Ghumi.
Soon after receiving the second note, Roy had reinstated his old network of informants. They were all his old associates, who could seem dormant or engaged in some mundane activities but were on alert, waiting for a signal. After their last mission, they knew that there would be a strike back or a resurfacing of the timber thieves somewhere, the only question was when.
All those who were bordering retirement from active combat, scattered themselves across the small but significant towns and townships of Jharkhand and took up their residence as entrepreneurial civilians of moderate calibre. Roy had not only settled in Ghumi, but had also fallen in love with the place. There was something charmingly timeless about that small township, a presence untouched by the disturbances or degradation of the outside world. Over the years he had developed a protective instinct about the place, a desire to retain its innocence. And, so now when he confronted or rather, sensed the enemy, he felt oddly responsible towards this home of his midlife.
He had found his life here. Ladli, the orphan girl he had found abandoned in the nearby forest had become the mainstay of their childless conjugality. He had later learnt that abandoning newborns and orphans in the nearby forest was one of the frequent happenings around that place. Poverty, dowry, lack of employment and awareness — all the usual evils that elbowed each other for a space in that area just beyond the factory estate, had nipped many innocent lives.
The estate with settlers from various parts of the country, all bound together by a single employer, the factory, was an insulated, isolated ivory tower, untouched by the real tide of lives just beyond it. Roy, as much as he loved that community, was also in quest of something more, something beyond his immediate mission. Ladli had stirred something within him, a softer aspect of his existence that he had forgotten all about. A fond childhood memory came back to him — his mother keeping aside a portion of fish everyday for the sweeper’s wife who was advised some protein in her diet but was too poor to afford it. His mother would also set aside some fruits for their maid everyday each time she was pregnant. That watchful caring attitude had percolated down to him, making him more sensitive towards the people around him.
When he dashed into Mr. Iyer’s office that morning, he was more than pleased with himself. After the inputs from his network of informants, Roy knew that almost a quarter of the forest reserve had already been devoured by the insatiable greed of these timber thieves. But since these were in the extreme interior of the forest, none came to know about the loss. Roy was also informed of the date of their next illegal foray into the jungle. Wanting to catch the smugglers red-handed, he quickly accumulated a small but very capable band of people with Prabhu’s help. Roy was cheered by the eager efficacy of Prabhu’s support, born from a commitment that only a deep love for one’s hometown could command. And he intuitively knew that his effort would not fail. So many locals had lost their livelihood to these organised thieves; who knows, perhaps Ladli’s parents too were a victim of that. He did not want any more Ladlis.
As his small band of men crept slowly into the forest, they could hear a rhythmic thud, one that could only be made by an axe’s crashing down upon a tree trunk. Within moments Roy’s men organised themselves into a circle and in no time those men were overpowered.
The entire episode was hushed by the management to maintain peace among people yet somehow small slices of information sneaked out. People of Ghumi started treating Roy as a hero. But most importantly, a rigorous interrogation revealed the resurgent timber thieves’ head was Guddu, Roy and his cronies’ old rival. Their last operation had been partly successful as they managed to dent the network but could not behead it. The serpent had needed years to rear its head. The decade long wait had paid Roy and company handsomely. Guddu was caught at last. Stripped of his maze like network, he was a part of this group of timber thieves, though being involved in direct action had not been his style of operation. However, a truncated gang of dedicated followers and increased risk of operation had forced him to join his recent forays hands on.
With Guddu’s sentence, Roy heaved a relief. He could now retire from the forces to be the entrepreneur he had posed to be all this while.
* 1 Lakh – 1,00,000
Nabanita Sengupta is an Assistant Professor of English by profession and creative writer by passion. Translation remains one of her chief areas of work and interest. Her works can be read in various journals, anthologies and e-zines.
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