Silver Coins……..a true story.
Newspapers in the last few days have been awash with Mehul Choksi’s potboiler exploits which appear to give the James Bond franchise a run for their money. Not that earlier episodes of Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi were any less exciting but Season 3 of ‘India’s Most Wanted Fugitives’ takes it to an altogether different level.While I soak in these runaway-bride dramas on a daily basis, my analogical thoughts can’t help but go back to a chance meeting with a fascinating man ‘also in distress’ more than three decades back.
Year of the Lord 1989, it was. Posted to a fighter squadron in Gorakhpur, life was simply restricted to flying three sorties per day and far removed from the ways of the world. One big stress-buster in those days used to be the annual Squadron Mela (fete) which was conducted with lot of fan-fare and gusto. The squadron families, especially the children used to look forward to the event with great anticipation. Fun-rides, games stalls, food counters, raffle and sporting events; it used to be a joyous occasion spread over two days.
Money to finance the show however used to be always short and we used to resort to sponsorship from local contractors, businesses and organizations in the form of advertisement pages in the annual squadron booklet. Such a practice would evidently be frowned upon in today’s world of probity checks and conflict-of-interest issues. But in those days, no one ever saw anything wrong in such an action in the name of squadron-spirit. So prior to one such grand mela, yours truly found himself nominated as the Chief Fund Raiser or CFR for short.
Taking my duties of CFR very seriously, I set about my liaison activities in right earnest to get in touch with prospective donors who would buy my story about contributing to national security if they bought a Page (or even a half) in the squadron magazine with most of the articles repeated almost every alternate year. One lazy winter morning, my search for one such prospect took me to the premises of a rather well-known real-estate Developer in town. The Developer’s office was a fairly big edifice in the heart of the city. While I was being ushered into the building, I could not help but notice a fairly large number of people squatting peacefully in the waiting hall. The mood was sombre and a local tea-stall boy handing over small glasses of the hot elixir, was the only activity that was noticeable.
As I entered his office, the Developer Ashokji somewhere in his mid-fifties, surrounded by 4-5 of his staff was kind enough to rise and welcome me. The tea-boy was hurriedly called in to offer me a cup of tea, which I graciously accepted so as to have the opportunity to make small talk followed by my standard fund-raising story. I went about my routine pitch but I could sense Ashokji getting a bit uncomfortable as he glanced towards the others in the room with a touch of embarrassment. While being appreciative of our efforts, he profusely apologized for not being in a position to make a contribution.
I was frankly surprised by the unexpected response from a man of his stature and prepared myself to exit gracefully. However, my curiosity still alive, I asked him about the crowd outside as a parting question. Suddenly, overcome by a torrent of emotions, he sighed deeply and broke down with a suppressed whimper. I expressed my apologies, just in case I was the cause of his anguish in any way. He gathered himself and made me sit down and requested the others to vacate the room while he shared his absorbing story with me.
Starting his life as a small time building contractor, he had slogged over three decades to become one of Gorakhpur’s leading and trustworthy developers. Many had invested in his latest mega-housing project which unfortunately ran into extremely rough weather because of the land mafia. With his business model literally collapsing, losses had mounted rapidly and now he was in no position to pay back the majority of investors. Reaching that terrible state of literal bankruptcy, he had concluded that the only option available to him was to come out clean with the people who had trusted him. He had made his book of accounts transparent to his clients along with a vow to make amends in the best possible way by liquidating the left-over land parcels and pledging all his personal assets as well.
The people waiting outside were just a subset of the affected customers who would come everyday with hopes of any possible good news of land sales. Any money coming from such random deals was being distributed equitably to them through a reconciliation team consisting of staff and client reps. I cannot forget Ashokji’s mid-conversation words, “Sir, I have lost everything in life. The least I can do is to protect my goodwill. With that intact and with God’s grace, maybe my days will change once again.”
Overwhelmed, as I got up once again to take my leave, he put his hand deep into his table drawer and took out a fancy bag with a dozen or so very large silver coins. Embedded with his company logo, these used to be his ‘once upon a time’ executive gifts on booking a property. He had no more use of these shining coinages. Much against my wishes and resistance, he literally thrust them in my hand to be used as prizes for the sports events at the Mela.
Humbled and chastened by my experience, I left his office with troubled emotions about accepting the metalware. Coming outside, I conversed with a few local people who were well aware of Ashokji’s travails and misfortune. They made it a point to praise the man and point out that his credibility was so high that not one customer had gone to the police for lodging a complaint.
The mela was a success story, notwithstanding the fact that people could not quite comprehend the mystery behind the costly prizes at the sporting events. As a courtesy call, I rang up Ashokji after the mela to thank him for his support. Still enamoured by his story, we got talking once again and I inquisitively asked him, “Ashokji, did you ever think of running away from all of this and starting a new business venture in some other city?”
“Rajeevji, many well-wishers came to me with that idea” he answered, “But how far can I run away from the bitter truth that I have been the cause behind these people’s misery and despair?”
With my eyes getting moist, suddenly I realised that I had no more questions to ask.
First published at seekmediation.com on 08/06/21
Email us at: email@example.com
Epilogue: Since the time this story got published, a great many people have asked me,” What finally happened to Ashokji?” In fact, a very dear friend of mine Amit who grew up in Gorakhpur and is now residing abroad decided to do a bit of research on him. The response received from him today is reproduced verbatim:
“I called a friend of mine from the Marwari community in Gorakhpur upon reading the story. He is from one of the oldest Marwari families in Gorakhpur and I knew he would know about Ashokji. He told me that it took him sometime to recover. His good will was such that the trading community lent him money and helped him resurrect his business. He was able to get back into fertilizer distribution and also into real estate. He recently passed away battling covid-19.”
May your kind soul rest in eternal peace Ashokji. They aren’t making many of your kind anymore.