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|by Ramendra Kumar|
(A father pays a very high price for his corrupt ways)
"Baba, why did you hit Raju so hard? He is still crying. He has not even touched his food." Baba had been reading his favorite book - Bapu's 'My Experiments with Truth'. He looked much older than his age. He was 52, but his white hair, the wrinkled, slightly wizened face made him look closer to seventy.
Baba placed the book on the table and looked up, a hint of a frown creasing his heavily lined forehead. Seven year old Pinky was standing with her hands on her hips and a pout on her chubby, pretty face. Behind her were Vijay and Saira. Baba smiled and pulling Pinky close he lifted her and placed her on his lap.
"My, my! My Choti Ma is angry with me." Baba always called Pinky his Choti Ma or Little Mother. Among all his children she was his favorite.
"Yes, I am very angry with you. You shouldn't have hit him so hard. His face is still red."
"I know Pinky. I never should have hit him. But I really couldn't help it. I caught him stealing money from my almirah. If he wanted anything he could have asked me. Why did he have to steal? All of you know how much I hate any sort of dishonesty."
"But, Baba, we have never seen you so angry.....," Vijay said.
"There is a reason behind this, son. Come sit down and let me tell you a story."
Saira and Vijay sat beside him and Baba began his story in his soft gentle voice.
Mini came to the balcony and looked all around. There was still no sign of Papa. It was nine and he had promised he would be home by seven. Today was her seventh birthday and she had invited all her friends. She was to have cut the cake at seven thirty. Half an hour back her mother had asked her not to wait any longer.
"But mummy how can I cut the cake without Papa? I will wait for him. He promised he will come."
Mini went in and sat down in a corner glumly. She decided that she would never ever talk to Papa. He had no business being late on her birthday. Her entire party had been spoilt because of him. She would never forgive him.
"Mini, Mini darling! Where are you?"
She jumped up. It was her Papa's voice. She looked around. He was standing at the door, holding his ears in a gesture of apology. Inspite of herself she couldn't help laughing. She ran to him. He picked her up and hurled her in the air.
"I know my little princess is angry with Papa. But what could poor Papa do? He had to get his da’ling daughter a gift which would suit her royal taste."
"What have you brought for me Papa? Show me," Mini said looking all around trying to spot her present.
"First you give me a pappi and then close your eyes."
Mini kissed her father and he put her down.
"Now open your lovely eyes, sweetheart."
Mini opened her eyes and shrieked with delight. Right in front of her was a beautiful bicycle - bright pink with yellow and green bands.
"Ooh Papa! It’s lovely." Mini exclaimed hugging her Papa.
Mini's father Ajit Ray was an Electrical Inspector in the State Government. That night when Mini had gone to bed his wife Urmila asked him. "How much did the cycle cost?"
"Why? Didn't you like it?"
"I liked it. But that doesn't answer my question. I want to know what it cost."
"1600! Ajit, why do you have to get such a costly gift for her?"
"What do you mean why? She is my only daughter and I love her. That's why. I don't know what's your problem?"
"My problem is that I am still unable to understand how an Electrical Inspector working in the State Government can afford such costly gifts for his daughter even if she is the only one. Just last week you brought three dresses for her each costing more than Rs 500."
"What are you getting at?"
"Ajit are you sure what you are doing is right?"
"What do you mean?" Ajit demanded.
"I suspect...rather I know that you are accepting favors you shouldn't be. Even in your department this kind of talk is going on."
"How do you know?"
"In the last picnic I overheard Mrs. Pushpa Sinha and Mrs. Susan Abraham talking. And moreover Ajit can I not make out? Just see our lifestyle. No one with your kind of income can afford to live like us."
"But Urmila I don't go asking people for favors. If they on their own want to give something why should I refuse. You know the Hindi proverb: 'When Goddess Lakhsmi knocks on your door you should never refuse her entry'."
"Come on Ajit, do you think these people who are bestowing favors are doing so because they are fond of you. They are doing it either because they expect something in return or because you have gone out of the way to oblige them."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Do you want me to spell it out? You are an Electrical Inspector. It is your duty to check the electrical safety aspects as well as the potential fire hazards like transformers and generators located in the cinema halls. You grant the theatres electrical and fire safety certificates. If the theatre owners are doing everything as per the norms why should they pay you? They are giving you money so that you quietly give them the necessary certificate without asking too many questions or creating any problems."
Ajit slowly clapped his hands in mock applause.
"Terrific Urmila. I must say you have a great imagination. Even if all this is true so what? In today's world if one has to get ahead one has to be practical. Or else he will suffer like my father did. As you know he was in the Income Tax Department. He could have made a lot of money. Instead he chose to be honest. And look what this honesty gave him? Nothing. He died almost a pauper. My mother was suffering from an heart ailment. By the time he could scrounge together enough money for her to go in for a heart transplant she suffered a stroke and expired. I don't want to suffer like my father. Nor can I subject you and Mini to the kind of torture we suffered because of lack of money. I want all of us to lead a comfortable life. And for this if I have to compromise a little bit, what's wrong? Everyone does it. So why shouldn't I?"
Urmila remained silent. She knew there was no point in arguing with Ajit. He was very stubborn. He would do exactly as he pleased.
Ajit was sitting in his office sipping coffee when his peon burst in.
"Saab, did you hear. There was a fire in 'Upkaar' theatre. More than fifty people are dead. The number may go up since many are still trapped inside."
Ajit's heart missed a beat. Just a month ago he had renewed the theatre's safety certificate. There had been a few irregularities which he had overlooked. After all Sanjay Mittal, the owner of Upkaar, was a good friend. The day after the certificate was given Mittal had taken him out to dinner in a five star hotel and had also given him a gift wrapped box. On reaching home and opening it Ajit was pleasantly surprised to find 20,000 rupees stacked in neat bundles in the box.
He now realized, his heart sinking, that if the cause of the fire turned out to be lack of electrical or fire safety then he would be in trouble.
Just then the phone rang.
"What's it Urmila?"
"Upkaar...Upkaar theatre has caught fire and .."
"I know, don't worry. Let me first find out the cause. It may be a short circuit or something. I may not be involved at all and -"
"Listen Ajit," she screamed interrupting him. "Mini... she...she has gone with Amita and Jolly to see a movie in Upkaar. I...I...am rushing there. Please come quickly." She banged down the phone.
Ajit suddenly felt numb. He made an attempt to get up but couldn't. He tried to shout - to call his peon - but no words came out. 'Mini... his sweet little Mini... trapped in the inferno. Oh! God, please let her be safe....'
He managed to get up and staggered out. He didn't want to risk driving his car. He hailed a passing taxi and jumped in.
"Upkaar," he croaked.
As the taxi neared the theatre Ajit's heart sank. The fire was still raging. Thick clouds of smoke were billowing up. People screaming, crying, firemen trying to rescue those trapped inside, the policemen making desperate attempts to control the crowds - there was chaos everywhere.
Ajit jumped out and ran towards the entrance. Making his way through the crowds he tried to get as close to the entrance as possible.
Bodies were still being carried out. But there was no sign whatsoever of either Mini or the neighbors who had accompanied her. He turned back and made his way to the exit. Just then he noticed Urmila, her hair completely disheveled, running here and there, begging people to help her locate her daughter. He took Urmila's hand and dragged her towards the exit. Burnt, charred and scarred bodies were lying on the ground - most of them damaged beyond recognition.
Suddenly he felt Urmila's grip tighten. She let out a wail and collapsed on the floor. He looked once again at the row of bodies and saw what Urmila had seen and fainted. Mini was lying in the middle, her body completely burnt. But her sweet and innocent face had been untouched by the flames. He sprang forward to pick her up. The moment he touched her he knew she was dead.
The next two weeks were an unending nightmare. The cause of the fire was made public. The transformer which was located on the ground floor of the theatre had caught fire and caused the conflagration. The transformer should have been located outside the theatre. And its unauthorized location should never have been cleared by the Electrical Inspectorate.
Ajit's world was totally shattered. His only daughter who was everything to him had died because of his greed. His lust for money had caused her death.
After Mini was cremated Ajit went to his department and gave a written statement. In it he accepted that he was responsible for the tragedy and ready to face whatever punishment meted out to him.
He was suspended for three months. However, because of his personal tragedy the Department decided to take a lenient view and hushed up the matter. The suspension was revoked but before that he resigned.
Ajit and Urmila packed their belongings and left the city forever. They couldn't bear to stay in the place where each and everything reminded them of their Mini.
They came and settled down in this small town on the banks of the river Ganga.
Ajit decided to open an orphanage for children. Just as he had lost his only child there were many children who had lost their parents. He and Urmila would play parents to them and try to fill the void left behind by Mini.
They started an orphanage on a rather modest scale with whatever savings they had. Ajit, who was an Electrical Engineer, got a job in a private company. Urmila stitched clothes, took tuitions and looked after the few children they had. They saved every pie and gradually nurtured their little haven of love and care.
Soon Ajit resigned and devoted all his time and energy to the orphanage. A few years later Urmila died. Now Ajit lives in the orphanage with his 43 children for company. His children are his life. Ajit gives them all his love and care but he cannot tolerate anyone showing even a hint of the habit which destroyed him. He will never allow them to make the mistakes he did. The minute he catches anyone being dishonest he ......"
Baba stopped speaking. Tears were flowing down Pinky's cheeks. She put her arms around him and clung to him.
"Baba, I think I know who Ajit is?" she said softly.
Image under license with gettyimages.com
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