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Stories. 
The True Wealth
by Ramendra Kumar

"Hello!"

"Yes!"

"Could I speak to Vineet Khaitan please?"

"Speaking."

"Vineet, its me Akhtar."

Vineet was silent for a moment. He thought he hadn't heard right. Akhtar....after all these years....no, it couldn't be.

"Akhtar....Akhtar Ali...is it really you?"

"What do you think? It's my ghost who is talking to you. Of course its me. Your best friend. Have you forgotten me?"

"Of course not. How could I forget you. How come you thought of me after all these years"

"You have always been in my thoughts but I didn't know your whereabouts. Today I read in the newspaper that you have been nominated the Best Teacher by the Andhra Pradesh Government and will be receiving the 'Dronacharya Award'. I made enquiries and got your residence number from your school."

"Where are you calling from?"

"Hyderabad. I am now settled here. Now tell me when are you coming here? According to the newspaper you will be receiving the award from the Chief Minister on 15th August. Why don't you come a couple of days earlier? You can stay with me and we can catch up with each other - there is so much to share."

"I am planning to reach on 14th morning. I have been booked in the State Government Guest House."

"Come on Vineet come a day earlier. And I won't have this guest Government guest house business; you will have to stay with me."

"Oh! All right." Vineet knew it was pointless arguing with Akhtar. He had never ever won an argument with him.

"Okay then I'll send my driver to Secunderabad railway station on 13th morning. He will be standing near the private car parking area with a placard carrying your name."

"Okay."

"See you on 13th morning. It was really lovely talking to you after all these years," Akhtar said.

Vineet mumbled a goodbye and replaced the receiver. He would be meeting Akhtar after a gap of 29 years to be exact. He sat down and looked out of the window as his thoughts raced furiously, peeling back the years gone by....

~*~

Vineet and Akhtar were childhood friends. They studied in a Government High School in Vishakhapatnam. Akhtar's father Mir Ali was a school teacher in the same school while Vineet's father Birju Khaitan was a wealthy businessman dealing in diamonds and real estate.

Vineet and Akhtar were as different as chalk and cheese. Akhtar was really fond of the good things in life. Once Vineet had taken him home and Akhtar had kept staring goggle eyed at the furniture, the air conditioner, the washing machine, the three door king size fridge, the fancy music system and practically everything else. He seemed to be utterly fascinated by the display of luxury. After that, whenever he got an opportunity he would come to Vineet's house and enjoy the grandeur.

Money was everything to Akhtar. "When I grow up all I want to do is to earn money, lots and lots of it, by any means possible," Akhtar would declare.

In stark contrast money held no fascination for Vineet. He was obsessed with books. He loved reading and writing. "When I grow up I will become a teacher. I will tell children stories which will entertain, educate and inspire," Vineet would say when asked about his ambition.

After tenth Vineet joined college to do his intermediate. Akhtar decided to discontinue his studies. One day he told his friend, "Vineet, tell your father and get me a job, any job in one of his concerns. I want to work with him and learn all I can."

Vineet got Akhtar a job in his father's diamond business.

Akhtar worked very hard and soon won Birju Khaitan's confidence.

"Akhtar is a bright and hardworking boy. He has a natural flair for business. He will go places. In fact Vineet you have a lot to learn from him. Instead of reading useless books and wasting your time doing a course which will give you nothing, you should join me in my business and learn the tricks of the trade, like Akhtar," Birju Khaitan would keep telling his son.

One day Birju Khaitan phoned Vineet from his office. He sounded agitated. When Vineet reached he found his father pacing up and down his face a mask of fury.

"That scoundrel Akhtar has disappeared with a box of diamonds. I had given him the box three days back to deliver to Seth Moolchand. This morning I got a call from Moolchand saying that he hasn't yet received the diamonds. I started looking for Akhtar and found that he has been missing since that very day. I sent a person to his house but there was no trace of him. He told his father that he was going to Hyderabad on official work and disappeared."

"But Babuji why didn't you check with Seth Moolchand the same day?"

"Faith beta faith. I had total faith in Akhtar. I could never imagine that he would do such a thing. Moreover, for the last few days I have been busy with the purchase of three plots of land in Jubilee Hills and this matter completely slipped from my mind."

"Now what are you going to do?"

"I'll inform the police and hound him till I get back my stuff."

"What would be the value of the diamonds?"

"Around fifty thousand rupees."

"But it is not the loss of money which hurts Vineet, it is the betrayal. A chit of a boy has made a complete fool of me. I'll finish him."

"Babuji please don't do anything rash. You know Akhtar's father is a heart patient. If the Policemen harass him he might collapse. Please, for my sake, don't call the police."

"Don't be silly Vineet. I can't just sit quiet twiddling my thumbs. What about my reputation? Once word spreads that a young novice has swindled me everyone will start taking me for granted."

"Come on Babuji your reputation is not so fragile that one such instance will ruin it. Think about Akhtar's father. He is such an honest and self respecting person; any scandal might simply destroy him."

After a lot of convincing and coaxing, Birju Khaitan finally relented and agreed to keep silent.

~*~

Vineet was preparing for his B.A. second year exam when his father walked into his room and handed him a letter. It was from Akhtar.

"Respected Uncle,

I know you must be very angry with me. But I had no choice. I had an offer of an attractive job in Dubai. The agent was demanding forty thousand rupees. There was no way I could raise that kind of money so I decided to steal. I felt miserable at that time and I still do. But I hope you will forgive this nephew of yours who has always been more like a son to you.
I am making an attempt to return what I took.
Regards,
Akhtar."

Birju Khaitan handed his son a beautiful velvet box. Inside it was a set of twelve glittering diamonds.

"What's this Babuji?"

This is almost an exact replica of the set which Akhtar stole from me."

This was the last Vineet had heard of Akhtar.

~*~

Vineet got down from the train and proceeded towards the car park. There were around thirty drivers carrying placards and shouting the names of their clients.

"Vineet Saab," he heard someone calling his name. He turned back. A tall well built man clad in a chauffeur's uniform was standing to one side holding a placard on which his name was written. Seeing Vineet stop he stepped forward. He had a broad forehead, bright eyes and a sharp nose. His hair, which was combed back, had traces of gray near the temples. He looked more a film star than a driver. His face, particularly his smile, seemed vaguely familiar but Vineet couldn't quite place him.

"Are you Mr. Vineet Khaitan?" he asked Vineet who nodded.

"My name is Parvez. Mr. Akhtar Ali has sent me. Please come."

Parvez led Vineet to a black, gleaming Cielo.

As the car weaved its way through the city traffic Parvez chatted on. After a twenty minute drive they reached a huge iron gate which was opened by a watchman. Parvez drove in and parked in the portico of a two storey mansion. Parvez jumped out and opened the door.

As Vineet reached for his suitcase, Parvez said,"Leave that Saab, I'll send one of the servants to pick it up."

Parvez led Vineet to a large beautifully furnished drawing room.

"Please take a seat. I'll inform Saab that you have come."

Vineet sat down and looked around. The room was elegantly furnished. It was clear that the owner was a man of both wealth as well as an artistic taste.

Vineet heard someone cough and turned back. Parvez was standing there looking dashing in an immaculately cut navy blue suit. He was smiling and seeing that smile Vineet realized he had been made a fool of.

"You...you are.....ofcourse you are....Akhtar you rascal you had me completely fooled," Vineet exclaimed.

Akhtar stepped forward grinning from ear to ear and the two friends embraced.

"I just wanted to check whose memory is sharper yours or mine," Akhtar said.

"I admit defeat. I couldn't recognize you - you have changed a lot."

"But you haven't changed much. The same lean and lanky physique, the very same thoughtful, slightly confused expression on your face....I recognized you the moment I saw you."

Later as they were having breakfast Vineet asked Akhtar about his family.

"I haven't married Vineet. I was too busy making money. As you probably know I left India and settled down in Dubai. I was there for almost twenty years and earned pots of money. Then I came back and made Hyderabad my home. I started a new business exporting leather goods, handicrafts and diamonds to European countries. By the time I took respite from making money I was 45 - hardly the age to get married and start a family. I have adopted a boy my cousin Farookh's son Javed. He is a smart young man of 22. He now supervises my business. In fact he has taken over all the headaches. You can say that I am now leading a semi-retired life. All I do the whole day is sign a few papers which Javed gets and relax. I have grown addicted to horse racing and go to the races almost every day."

"You are happy then?"

"You bet. I am having a great time. You remember Vineet I used to always tell you that the only way to enjoy life is by having enough money to splurge. You can buy anything and everything with money. It is the ultimate password which can open all doors. You never used to agree with me. But finally I have been proved right. Look at me I have everything, name, fame happiness - I have it all. I am the president of the local Rotary Club, Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, I am on the board of two schools and three colleges. Just imagine! Me, a high school drop out! And all this because I am rich. Money my dear Vineet is the ultimate passport to success." Akhtar paused and looked at his friend. Vineet kept silent.

"But I should not be only talking about myself. What about you? How have you been all these years? You too must be very rich having inherited your father's business."

"Yes I am one of the wealthiest men in the world," Vineet began quietly. But not because of my father's wealth. I am rich because I have a son who is hardworking, sincere and intelligent. He has qualified this year for the IPS. I am wealthy because I have daughter who is cultured and talented. She is studying to be a doctor. I am prosperous because I have a wife who is devoted to me and helps me run a school which provides value based education to children."

"But what about your father's business?"

"That is being managed by my brother Arpit. Father and I had a disagreement. He wanted me to marry his business partner's daughter for money. She was bringing with her a hefty dowry. I had fallen in love with Shraddha who is an orphan. I left home and my father disinherited me."

"I am so sorry to hear that. Had you inherited his business you would have been rolling in wealth."

"I am not at all sorry. I am happy as I am. The satisfaction I get from my family and my job is much more than what I would get if I was the wealthiest man in the world."

Akhtar shrugged. "You haven't changed at all, Vineet," he said.

"Where is Javed?" Vineet asked his friend.

"I have sent him to Tanzania. I am buying two diamond mines there. I have invested everything I have in this venture. If I get possession of the mines, very soon I'll be twice as rich as I am today. Moreover I'll also be realizing my dream of making Akhtar Ali Associates a truly international name."

~*~

Two weeks later Vineet got a phone call from Hyderabad.

"Hello, Vineet Mian, salaam vaalekum, I am Akhtar Mian's cook Rashid Pasha," an old voice said in chaste Urdu.

"Yes, Rashidjee, I remember you and your chicken biryani very well. How is Akhtar?"

"Mian. I have very bad news. Akhtar Mian has suffered a stroke. He is in the hospital. No one else is here so I rang you. Can you please come."

"Of course. I'll start this evening and reach tomorrow morning."

~*~

Rashid Ali met Vineet at the station.

"How is Akhtar now?" Vineet asked Rashid in the car.

"He is in a bad state. His left side is paralyzed."

"How did it happen?"

"I too am not sure. Two nights back he got a phone call. A few minutes later he started screaming at the top of his voice. When the watchman and I reached the room he was lying on the floor clutching his heart. We rushed him to the hospital and next morning I rang you up.

The car stopped in front of the nursing home and they went in.

Vineet was shocked to see Akhtar. He looked a ghost of his previous self. He was sleeping, his face pale and tired.

He has had a stroke. His left side is paralyzed. He will be able to speak with a little difficulty but won't be able to use his left hand and leg," the doctor informed Vineet.

Vineet spent a week in the nursing home. Akhtar with quite some effort managed to tell him the reason for his collapse.

Javed had gone to Tanzania to negotiate the purchase of the two mines. He had been given the power of attorney by Akhtar. Using this Javed had transferred the mines to his name and settled down in Dar es Salaam the capital of Tanzania. This had left Akhtar almost a pauper since he had pledged his entire wealth to buy the mines. His attorney had got the information of Jaaved's skulduggery and had telephoned Akhtar. Poor Akhtar had not been able to bear the shock and had collapsed.

As Akhtar recounted his story he broke down and wept like a child. Vineet made enquiries and was shocked by what he learnt. Akhtar was really in ruins. His house, furniture, even his car had been mortgaged. In his bid to buy the mines Akhtar had played the biggest gamble of his life and in the process lost everything. He didn't even have the money to pay his nursing home bills. Vineet cleared the dues and took Akhtar to Vishakhapatnam. There he gradually nursed him back to health. In six months Akhtar was able to walk using a walking stick.

A year later, one evening, Akhtar was sitting in Vineet's house reading the newspaper when Vineet burst in.

"Akhtar I have terrific news for you. One of my old students Prabhakar Rao is an IFS officer. Ten months ago he was appointed as ambassador to Tanzania and posted in Dar es Salaam. I wrote to him about your case and gave him all the details which I had got from you. I just got a call from Prabhakar, Javed has been nabbed by the Tanzanian Police."

"B... but how?"

"Well, after hearing from me Prabhakar kept a tab on Javed. Evidently while exercising his power of attorney, Javed made a slip somewhere and has now been caught. The Tanzanian Police have arrested him. Prabhakar assured me that soon the mines will be restored back to you."

Akhtar almost jumped up with joy. "Vineet how can I ever thank you."

"You don't have to Akhtar. You know I have never believed in formalities," Vineet said.

~*~

Eight months later Akhtar and Vineet were sitting in Akhtar's house in Hyderabad. Akhtar had taken possession of the mines and had immediately sold them to a business associates of his for a small profit. Javed was languishing in one Tanzania's jails.

"Vineet, though I am loathe to admit it, I have to. You were right. Money really is not everything. All my life I had run after money but now I have finally realized it is only a mirage. A hefty bank balance, a grand house, a beautiful car all these will not give one true happiness. These material things are not one's real assets. True wealth is an honest heart, a generous soul and wise mind. I have realized that it is not the rich and famous who live in the hearts they leave behind but compassionate, caring and concerned individuals like you."

"I am glad to hear that Akhtar."

"Wait, I've not finished. I have decided to donate all my wealth to set up a school which will be devoted to teaching children not merely knowledge but wisdom and not just skills but values. I want you and your wife to run the school. I request you to raise children who will grow up to be Vineets not Akhtars."

Vineet embraced Akhtar and the two friends walked out together to look for a building that would house their dream school.     

Images under license with gettyimages.com

16-Jul-2006
 
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