I met a small town contractor 20 years ago. He had the aura of a man on an epic journey.
This is his story.
The first instinct on receiving a bullet wound is usually nothing. Because the magnitude of heat and pain in the body is so extreme that the mind is not equipped to react with an ordinary response. In that short instant all that remains is the stream of pure air that feeds us.
A place where nothing much seems to happen — does not always have to depend on a dream to escape it or a bullet wound to appreciate it.
I was the only one to alight at the Phaphund station. It was three hours after midnight. Gunmen accompanied me to a jeep that drove me to a guesthouse located on the first floor of a local home. A few years earlier, a contractor’s Project Manager was taken hostage for ransom in this town and killed when negotiations tested the patience of his captors. It was close to the start of site construction at the Petrochemical Plant and I would stay here for a year.
As the project progressed, we were looking for a sub-contractor to handle the piping work for the facility. A Sardarji met us with strong recommendations. Discussions with him were underway, when I had a visitor.
I was sitting in a dingy site office when Avinash Pandey was first ushered into the room. His gunmen hovered around the corridor outside.
A few months earlier, a colleague had been escorted from his hotel room to the home of a local strongman. The purpose of that meeting was left ominously unclear. I was told to ensure we did no business with him. He was now in the room before me.
He sat and courteously waited for me to fold away the papers on my desk. He was unlike other locals who sought minor bounties — who waited for the flicker of nervousness in your eyes, to extract a few fleeting months with a steady income. He seemed more patient, wisened by the inevitability of all that we do being eventually undone by time.
He began to introduce himself and his company - Radix Engineering. I tentatively reminded him that the work on our hands was too complex to offer him an assignment. He paused. I heard the heat stall across the corrugated roof. Beneath the slight bow of his head floated a delicately bruised smile. He had come to know I was stationed at site and was only here to meet me, not canvass for work. He was available to help if the need arose was his quiet submission as he prepared to leave. I asked him to stay for a cup of tea.
As the months progressed, I was relieved by the unsophisticated ease of small towns. Insulated from the numb predictability of urban transactional decorum. That percolates from formal convent schools, clichéd celluloid screens and vacuous Americanised opinions — like a permanent drizzle that soaks the human race in the stench of an awkward sickness –— until the real and the scripted merge into an affected ordinary.
When Sardarji was struggling during the finishing stages of the project, after some hesitation, I called Pandey for help. He did not gloat or discuss terms. He owned our problem like it was the purpose of his existence. Executed a quick and effective intervention. A future partnership took its first tentative step.
We began to gradually use him for work across the country. When cash-flows were tight and other sub-contractors and vendors barged into my room or yelled at me over the phone, he would sit across my table in hopeful dialogue with the shared understanding that suffering is a part of every human effort.
Pandey had an intuitive understanding of the vulnerability of a leader. He believed men must transcend who they were to be trustworthy partners to each other. His men were cemented into a single reflection of all the values he stood for. It resonated with the way we were. Enabled them to align with us like a chameleon that dissolves into its native environment. Our many oars would row in tandem. And we became friends.
Pandey was on his own epic voyage.
When too many days run at cross purposes to the dreams with which they begin, men become neutral bystanders to their own life. Villages empty out, like a geographical Ponzi scheme, to escape a world where nothing much seems to happen. To explore, encounter and discover the unknown promises of the modern world. Pandey dreamt of simple things. Of the day when his children would not need to rely on the strength of his limbs to survive, but find a way through the world with the gentle power of their minds. In the equilibrium of interdependence that seemed to keep sprawling cities in relative peace.
Nursing the fragile hope of all fathers, that their children will not face the grief and deprivation that made them.
Pandey was the only man who had ever cleared the IAS exam from his town. But he chose to pass that over to become a contractor. So that he could carry more of his people along with him. An event and a decision that evoked awe and courage. Transformed into folklore through the whispers of anxious mothers and stranded middle-aged men — searching for inspiration to justify their faith in unseen forces.
Over eight transformative years, he did the hard climb out of the ravines surrounding Phaphund. Built his company Radix into a firm that one could trust with a difficult deadline. He always kept his word. His unwavering poise anchored in the constant memory of a noble mission.
As his reputation grew, he began receiving work from other mainstream contractors. It culminated in a large pipeline subcontract from one of our competitors for a project in Mathura. It was in a region known for political turmoil on the ground and Pandey was required by the main contractor to help navigate their project through that volatile terrain.
The Mathura project ran into multi-fold problems, not of Pandey’s making. It was severely under-priced by the main contractor and as their losses mounted, so did his. Buried in debt and hypnotised by the precise heartlessness of numbers, the main contractor distanced themselves from him to attend to their own challenges.
As the weight of his burdens from that project swelled, he began to lean on work from us again to help him tide over the aftermath. The shine began to dim in his eyes.
To a man in debt, each minute passes waiting in hope for a drop of water from a parched tap to fill a broken bucket. And so a difficult year leaked by, until he got his first major contract directly from an oil company in Jamnagar. There was enough money to be made in it to steady his sinking ship. As the Jamnagar project progressed, the pressure from his old creditors kept growing. He held them at bay with the hopeful patience of a chess player. Energised by the promise of imminent recovery.
Until that fateful day arrived.
A debt resolution meeting had been brokered in Jamnagar by a local politician with one important creditor from the old Mathura project. With Radix’s business still choking for cash, he approached this dialogue with one agenda. To show the transformation underway and request, in good faith, for understanding. But such requests only work for those blessed with the luxury of time and alternatives. When both sides come to the table with limited options, such discussions hit a dead end. They either lead to the courts, or worse.
In this case, it led to a gun fight. The creditors were shot dead and the politician left injured.
Like the swift stroke of a samurai sword, that event reduced Radix into a lifeless corpse — that went still and disappeared back into the ground.
Since that fateful day in December, eleven years ago, we have never seen or heard from Pandey.
There were rumours that he migrated with his family to a new location and assumed a fresh identity. That he continues to live the life of a fugitive, moving from place to place each year, without leaving any footprints of his life. Plotting a stealthy liquidation of the able men around his deceased creditors, until one day he can return back to the defeated refuge of his ancestral home, abandoned for years under the wary watch of vultures.
But the assumption that has gained acceptance is that he, his wife, his children and his trusted lieutenants were all killed with the systematic fury of vengeance.
Every brutal battle begins with an everyday incident. This time it was a decision taken in the safe confines of an urban office with its books out of balance. One that cut Radix loose into a snake pit of creditors in an unforgiving belt of the rural heartland. It forced men to seek refuge in the language of their forefathers. The kind that sidesteps the perverse sophistication of slow moving courts and ill-intentioned negotiations.
Everything that seems evil has a backstory that begins with noble intentions. And all that appears good has a worm of weakness that can eat through it.
Opposites weigh into each other, in an unstoppable search for the equilibrium of neutrality. The temporary life of a gurgling river, hurtling to dissolve into the benign sea.
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