I was bringing out a local daily those days। I was its publisher, chief editor, editor, sub editor, reporter, photographer, designer etc। and also the distributor. For convenience and appearance, I had put the names of my wife, my mother and my sons against these designations.
Early in the morning, I would take the news papers printed in the press below my bed room and tie them behind my motor cycle. I would give them to my deputies, a band of school drop outs who waited for me in the nearby tea shop. They in turn made door to door delivery. Not a difficult job in Paori, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas.
I was getting news print at subsidized rate for eighteen thousand copies; we however printed around three hundred. Selling the unused news print was one of the sources of my income.
Whatever may have been the circulation, it had given me a place in the society. I was given due recognition by the district authorities. I would be called to the front row in public functions and invited to all the press conferences of the District Collector. In short, I was part of the town’s intelligentsia not withstanding the envy of few. I knew it and I had learnt the art of ignoring it. The truth was that I was enjoying the perks of my clout with all those who mattered.
My importance, call it market value in economic parlance, was at its peak during election days. Some party or the other would give me out of pocket expenses and a jeep, which I would use liberally for taking out my family on pleasure trips and excursions.
Thanks to our democratic system. There are parliament elections, assembly elections, legislative council elections, municipal elections, zila parishad elections and elections galore. And then there are defections and dissolution of elected bodies which adds to the number of elections. It thus meant that I had a jeep most of the time and unmindful as I am in such matters, I never bothered about changing party-flags atop my jeep or for that matter the people lending it to me.
Unfortunately, my social standing didn’t impress my wife who found it difficult to run the household and to be honest, I knew she had tough time in managing the house because of my scant, irregular and inadequate income.
One day I saw my nephew in the bazaar holding couple of brass utensils in his hand. I could recognize them. Those were from our house. My nephew was baffled to see me since he didn’t expect me in the bazaar at that time.
I was shocked to learn that he had come to sell the utensils at the bidding of my wife so as to pay the tuition fee of my two sons, which was over delayed.
Never had I felt so distressed and depressed in my life. I realized that it was my fault and that I needed perennial and respectable income.
I frankly admit, I couldn’t have qualified for any government job. Besides, I had crossed the age limit. Above all, it would have hurt my ego. It would have compromised my position in the society. The other possibility was to get a job for my wife. That was possible. Besides she was a post graduate with first division.
I then decided to get her a job and that became my mission.
A couple of days later, while writing filler for my paper, an idea flashed in my mind.
In Paori, everyone needed woolens during the major part of the year. One could see the ladies knitting during most part of the year. What if there were a formal training center in the district with modern knitting techniques and machines. My wife knew a little bit of knitting so I decided to explore the possibilities.
I met the District Collector - DC, the next day.
"Our district is backward and people here are quite poor. A Vocational Training Center should be opened to train young girls and boys. It will make them self reliant."
"Yes. I agree with you." The DC was quick to respond.
"To start with, I suggest we take up something that needs minimum infrastructure."
"You are absolutely right"
"I suggest we start with a Knitting Center – a KC."
"Perfect, perfect." echoed the DC.
I then told him of the publicity he would get in improving the lot of women in the district particularly in the ‘Year of Girl Child’ and I offered to give it a wide and extensive coverage in my paper.
“Call the Cottage Industry Development Minister –the CIDM who hails from this district. He will gain a mileage in his constituency.” I suggested.
The idea clicked and plans were drawn on war footing then and there. Before leaving his room, I also told the DC that I knew an excellent ‘Knitting Expert’.
In two months, a KC, first of its kind in the district, nay in the State came in to existence and the CIDM agreed to inaugurate it. For pragmatic reasons it was however decided that the inauguration ceremony should be arranged in the district parade ground.
The whole town was agog with excitement. After all it was the first visit of CIDM to the district after his appointment as a minister. It was but appropriate that he gave a good gift to his constituency on his first visit.
The entire party outfit was in action. It was a prestige issue for the district chief of the party. I had in any case whispered in to his ears that there were some rumours of his being replaced by his arch rival.
“It is the test of your organizational ability. Make sure, the function is a success.”
The District Chief assured me to put his best to make the function a grand success.
Every thing was going as per my plans.
I declared my intentions to bring out a special edition of my daily to mark the occasion. I called for write ups from every Department. The result was that every Head of Department was running up to me requesting for favourable coverage.
The D day was just a week away. The DC had reminded me several times to produce the Knitting Expert before him and I had very deftly given him one story or the other. Time again I was getting phone calls from his office to bring the person to his office.
Three days before the D Day, I sent a message to DC’s office that I have not been able to ascertain the availability of the prospective candidate due to my busy schedule.
My message was like pressing a panic button. That very evening the DC called an emergency meeting to review the situation. All was going well other than physical presence of the Knitting Expert. At the peak of frenzy, I asked the District Industry Officer - the DIO to issue an appointment order in the name of Gauri Devi.
“Who is she? How can we issue the appointment order without interviewing the candidate?” The salvo was fired by the DIO.
I was prepared for it.
"Well, I am busy today so I can bring her before you only tomorrow afternoon,” I said giving a sardonic look at the DIO.
That rattled the DC. “The DIO should have looked in to this matter earlier. There is hardly any time left before the CIDM visit. You want me to look like a fool?” He said staring at the DIO.
The DIO was red in the face. Wanted to say some thing but it only remained an inaudible blabber.
“Take my orders and issue the appointment order immediately, right now.” The DC snapped and left the meeting.
"I will not let you down sir. The Knitting Expert will be here tomorrow,” I told the DC over his shoulders.
Next morning the DIO rang me to say that the order was ready and that I could collect it at any time.
The day of reckoning had come. Every thing was going as planned. I had invited several girls and ladies from my family and friends. The programme was to be followed by high tea. I thought it was good opportunity to oblige them by extending the hospitality.
The CIDM was very happy. The gathering was good and the arrangements near perfect. He was in expansive mood acknowledging the cheers from the crowd.
"Sir, much of the credit for this KC should go to Mohanji, a renowned journalist and a dedicated social worker," The DC said indicating towards me in his emotionally charged speech.
I was elated.
"Sir, we are lucky to have Gauriji as our Technical Officer, Knitting. She is a highly experienced and skilled knitting expert," the Collector said pointing towards a figure sitting at the far end of the dais.
All eyes turned to wards the lady. Clad in a khadi sari was the TO Knitting giving a naïve smile to all and sundry.
Some people thought they knew her. Perhaps they had seen her in the market or at some other common place.
"Gauriji is a devoted social worker and a dedicated teacher,” The DC told the CIDM whose eyes were roving along the contours of the lady in the khadi sari.
The CIDM praised the DC and other officers for their innovative idea of opening a KC in the district and he didn’t forget to say a few good words for me. "It is a good fortune that we have dedicated social workers like Mohanji amongst us. I am very happy for this collective effort," he said not turning his gaze from the TO, Knitting.
In short, the function was a grand success.
"I would like to discuss the future plans for the KC with Gauriji," he said to the DC before breaking for lunch.
"Please arrange a meeting in the evening at the Rest House and call Mohanji also."
Now it was my turn to be nonplus. I knew why the meetings were fixed with lady social workers and why in the Rest House and especially why in the evening.
Above all, I was squirming under the apprehension that the minister is going to use me as the negotiator. What a mess I had put my self and this simpleton wife of mine into? My wife could never conceive of such villainy from me. She would blow the top off minister's head and my head thereafter, the moment any amorous advances were made in her direction. I had to do some thing and do it fast. I had four hours to retrieve the situation.
Minister's home was in the adjoining village, about twenty miles away. His wife, children and his old parents were staying there. If alone I could bring them to the Rest House, it would save the situation.
I quietly slipped to the market place in the jeep that the DC had given me. I caught hold of one of my deputies and told the driver to take me to minister's village who looked quizzingly at me.
“There is a crisis and a serious one.”
“What crisis?” The jeep driver was inquisitive.
“Shut up and do what I say,” I snapped.
In an hour we arrived at the grocery shop in the minister’s village.
I gave the driver a twenty rupee note with a off the cuff statement.
"I am told this place is known for excellent country liquor; real stuff, gives you the kick of your life. But come back soon."
The driver was clever and like most of the government drivers liked to be looked after by the host. He was off the scene in no time.
Having set the stage, it was time for me to start the drama. I went to the tea shop adjacent to the grocer' shop.
"Kundan Singh", I said to my deputy in loud enough voice, "Is the minister very serious?"
"Oh yes. They must arrange an air-lift. In fact they should ring Delhi and get the military helicopter."
"Even if they take him in an ambulance to some good hospital, perhaps he may survive," I added plaintively.
"No, no. That will be too risky. It is a matter of a minister’s life. How can you take it so lightly?"
"The minister shouldn't have taken the risk knowing fully well that if he was still under treatment. These politicians are crazy when it comes to be seen in the public." I opined.
"Yes, but the administration should have been wiser and evacuated him at once. The function could have been postponed or the KC could have been inaugurated by the DC."
The shop keeper was aware of the minister's visit. He was alarmed.
"What happened? Who is seriously ill? Are you talking about the Industry Minister? Is he seriously ill? Have they informed his wife? Arrey! He is my first cousin,” he said with anxiety showing on his face.
I expressed helplessness with a parting shot.
"If you know his house, why don’t you inform his wife and parents? After all, any thing may happen and what’s the use crying afterwards. It is dangerous to leave the things at the mercy of bureaucrats."
"I am going immediately to his house to inform his wife and parents. What recklessness?" said the man with potion of fellow feeling over flowing.
The shop keeper was on his motor cycle before we could finish our tea.
The driver was thoroughly sozelled. I had wanted him that way. We dumped him on the rear seat and started back to the scene of action.
The minister asked Gauriji to take the seat next to him who by now was getting uneasy of her new status. The minister was cheerful, immaculately dressed with a beaming face. He often sought the opinion of Gauriji on issues, which were quite Greek to her.
The meeting was over. The CIDM looked at us and gave a smile to Gauriji. Everyone understood that it was a hint for others to disperse.
"What a beautiful place Gauriji?" The minister observed.
"Yes sir." Gauriji was brief.
"I wish I could stay here for ever," he continued.
"Difficult sir. You are a busy person."
"Yes, I know. I feel as if I am in heaven, perhaps it is because of you …… I…..mean your company …. I suppose you understand," the minister said giving Gauriji a meaningful look.
Gauriji was shrinking in her chair like a kitten at the sight of a blood hound closing in.
“You look very beautiful in this sari, very charming indeed,” the minister continued complimenting and then suddenly he held Gauriji’s hand and asked her, “why don’t you have dinner with me?”
Gauriji was flabbergasted and I was getting nervous.
"The idiot of the shop keeper might have fallen in to river or was the damn motorcycle punctured? Was minister’s father on death bed? May be, the scoundrel’s wife was in labour?" All sorts of depressing thoughts were tormenting me.
I was not breathing properly. My wife noticed that. I was stammering in my other wise fluent speech. I was about to faint when I heard the crackling noise of a motor cycle, I knew my saviors had come.
Next I heard the mouthful curses from minister’s wife who was told of total indifference, nay the deliberate carelessness of the administration in looking after her seriously ill husband.
I quietly went behind a cover lest any one of them recognized me.
"May the parents of the Collector die without water. May his wife become a widow." It was minister’s wife howling.
Every one was startled. I was not.
"Where have you kept my husband, you butchers? I will not spare any one of you. All of you will be hanged if anything happened to him."
Following the tirades of the devoted wife was the wailing father of the minister who was also transported by another devoted cousin. It was now minister’s father’s turn to seek the welfare report of his son.
"Have you called the military? Have you called the helicopter? Have you informed the Chief Minister? And have you informed the Prime Minister?" There were many issues causing concern to the old man.
The CIDM was visibly annoyed.
"What the hell is all this? Who the hell is sick here? "Why are you here in the first place? And who the hell gave you this information?" The minister shouted at his folks.
"Aren't you seriously ill? The lady wife wanted to know.
"Certainly not and now get lost. For how many times have I told you people not to interfere in my public life? You have spoiled my meeting. Now get out from here," he shouted exercising his lung power to the full.
I knew the battle was won. The minister’s wife was a determined fighter, she would not give in so easily. She would stay there for the night to ensure that her husband had a sound sleep.
The family of the CIDM retired to the inner rooms. We could listen to the animated discussion and clamour from inside.
I tiptoed quietly to Gauriji.
“Let’s go home. The CIDM had a hectic schedule and the ordeal is not yet over,” I told my wife, the newly appointed TO-Knitting and led her out of the Rest House.