Culture & Society

Short Story: Great Spirits

Arun AK writes a short story for Outlook.

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Photo: Getty Images
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1953: Utori, a fictional town somewhere in Northern India 

Just like any other working day, the second Monday of August had been no different for Arvind Shukla. Seated in his office cabin, he was typing the significant events of the day on his Royal Quiet Deluxe typewriter. Ever since he set up his small publishing house in the town of Utori, he never had to venture out to find news. A few phone calls and the stories to be published on the following day would be fed to him. Arvind’s daily publication ‘Sacch Vijayi’ (Truth Wins) was the sole source of news for the inhabitants of Utori and all latest developments of the town used to find their way in his stories. Whatever good that happened in Utori was reflected in his dailies and surprisingly there would be no trace of negative news; be it crime or corruption. Reading Arvind’s dailies gave the impression that Utori was no less than a Utopia!

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But, the reality was different. Utori was a living hell. The once bustling and lively town had been turned into a silent graveyard where people moved around like corpses. Fear could be felt in every street corner and an air of gloom seemed to engulf the town at all times. For many years, Utori had been under the terrorising reigns of Gajraj Singh — a politician-don who ruled supreme with an iron fist. Singh’s goons used to wreak havoc in the town on a whim and ‘hafta vasooli’ (extortion) had become an accepted norm which no one dared to challenge. Any occasional dissenting voice was silenced mercilessly in public, reminding every one of the grave consequences of rebellion. The police and judiciary were in Singh’s pockets and so was Arvind. All the notorious shenanigans of Singh had to be overlooked by ‘Sacch Vijayi’. 

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Extortion was more of an arm-twisting tactic for Singh than a money minting tool. For usurping wealth, he had partnered with Balwant Thakur — an industrialist who was also the business tycoon of Utori. With the help of Singh’s musclemen, Thakur had seized control over most of the major businesses in the region: construction, roads, transport, liquor stores, hotels, gambling dens, brothels, etc. Needless to say, the entire political funding for Singh was taken care of by Thakur. Together, they ruled over Utori, both financially and autocratically. Due to their monopoly, they dictated the prices of products and services in the marketplace and the inhabitants of Utori had no option but to pay exorbitant prices for procuring even essential commodities. Only those in powerful and influential positions along with the gang-members of Singh-Thakur enjoyed certain perks and privileges. The common man of Utori was ill-fated to endure suffering.

As most businesses were controlled by Thakur, most citizens had no other recourse but to work for him. They were overworked and underpaid. With sky-high prices for everything and lower wages, the citizens were bleeding money and most of them were forced to mortgage their assets to Thakur and his associates. Eventually, the majority of the population became bonded labourers for Thakur and Singh. Utori had turned into a dystopian society with citizens having no free will. And, Arvind’s ‘Sacch Vijayi’ functioned more like an advertorial for Thakur and Singh, rather than an unbiased publication. Only stories bragging about the development brought in by Thakur’s businesses and pseudo-political/social services made by Singh used to feature in ‘Sacch Vijayi’.

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One of the stories being typed on the second Monday of August by Arvind was about the latest pub soon to be launched by Thakur called ‘Great Spirits’. It would be located in the plush hotel ‘Golden Pride’ run by Thakur which was flocked by his and Singh’s close associates. Top police officials and judges were regular sights at the hotel’s casinos. ‘Golden Pride’ was an exclusive den open only to the coterie of Singh and Thakur. Details about the pub had been shared with Arvind by Thakur’s secretary over the phone, earlier in the day. It was going to be the most premium pub in Utori selling the finest quality alcohol, customised by a middle-aged professional named Manish Kumar. A couple of weeks back, in a meeting with Thakur, Kumar had impressed him with his sound knowledge and expertise in liquor-blending. Thakur quickly bought into Kumar’s idea of starting a pub offering customised blended alcohol.
Friday was slated to be the launch day of ‘Great Spirits’. On the previous night, Manish Kumar invited Thakur and Singh over to his hotel room in ‘Golden Pride’. Thakur had arranged for Kumar’s stay at his hotel for the time he would be in Utori. The three of them discussed the itinerary of the launch event and how the business operations of ‘Great Spirits’ would be rolled out. Meanwhile, Kumar even wanted the two men to taste the customised whiskeys he had specially curated for both of them, separately. He offered Singh one variety and Thakur the other one. As for himself, Kumar was a teetotaller and never consumed alcohol. All three of them joked and laughed over the irony of the situation. The drinking session went on till late night before Thakur and Singh went crashing into their respective rooms at the hotel.

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Friday evening had arrived. The launch event of ‘Great Spirits’ was going to commence in the largest hall of ‘Golden Pride’. Everyone close to Thakur and Singh was present there. The hall was packed with the most notorious and corrupt men of Utori. Arvind also had been invited to cover the event. After all, the next day’s ‘Sacch Vijayi’ edition would have to be filled with pompous details of the event. Both Thakur and Singh were welcomed onto the stage with thunderous applause by everyone. They were seated on the stage facing everyone. After a brief introduction about ‘Great Spirits’ by the compere, Thakur was invited over to the dais to share his thoughts. What followed thereafter was a shocker for everyone present in the hall. Out of the blue, Thakur started talking about the teachings of Gautam Buddha and seeking a higher purpose in life rather than being consumed by material greed. He admitted that all his life he had been running after money but the time had come now for a transformation. Like Buddha, Thakur pledged to renounce all attachments and distribute everything he had to the citizens of Utori. He acknowledged that they had suffered for too long and it was high time that their pain and miseries came to an end. All his businesses and properties would be distributed among his employees and workers, before leaving Utori forever on a pilgrimage to seek salvation. The entire hall was left stunned.

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It was Singh’s turn now to speak on the dais. For years, he had been the most terrorising figure in Utori and everyone was expecting him to lash out at Thakur for his flabbergasting volte-face. To everyone’s surprise, he began his speech by lauding Thakur on his recent transformation and congratulating him on choosing the righteous path. Then, Singh started advocating the ideals and principles of Mahatma Gandhi. It was hilarious to see the most violent and ruthless man of Utori preaching peace, dharma, and non-violence as the way of life. Singh promised that law and order would be restored in Utori and going forward he would be indulging in philanthropic pursuits. Many in the audience were left in splits as they thought that this was some sort of a wicked joke pulled by Singh and Thakur. Some of them started joking that Singh and Thakur had been possessed by the great spirits of Gandhi and Buddha, respectively. 

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Arvind was perplexed by this bizarre transformation that he had witnessed in the two ‘baahubalis’  (dons) of Utori. Even, he wasn’t sure if this was real or a prank. Things would become clear the next day on August 15. As part of India’s Independence Day celebrations, all employees of Thakur’s business ventures were called to their workplaces. Town-halls were announced at all workplaces and it was declared that the ownership of Thakur’s ventures would be distributed among employees and workers based on their grades and hierarchies. Work timings would be reduced to eight hours from the previously gruelling 12 hours and all the properties mortgaged by citizens would also be returned to them. Finally, after so many years of torment, the citizens of Utori had gained freedom from the clutches of bonded labour and slavery. Now that control had been handed over to the citizens of Utori, the monopolistic regime was immediately replaced with a democratic and free market. The competition was open, resulting in prices of commodities and services decreasing drastically and with an increase in purchasing power, the people of Utori started prospering. The goons of ‘ahinsavaadi’ (non-violent) Singh disappeared from the fore and no citizen faced harassment from the thugs anymore. Extortion and other crimes vanished from the face of Utori. The town was now lively and vibrant without any trace of fear among its citizens. As for Arvind, just like before, even now his dailies covered all the positive developments of Utori and there would be no mention of any negative news in his publication. The only difference now was that the news in ‘Sacch Vijayi’ was completely in sync with the town’s reality. The truth was winning in Utori.

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However, Arvind was yet to come to grips with what was happening in the town. He often wondered what might have caused this sudden transformation in Thakur and Singh. One fine afternoon, he received a call from the secretary of Thakur to inform him that Thakur had left Utori on his spiritual journey. Just when he hung up the phone, it struck him that Thakur’s secretary had mentioned on the second Monday of August about a certain Manish Kumar being responsible for the idea of ‘Great Spirits’. But, who was this Manish Kumar and where was he, wondered Arvind. Nobody had seen him during the launch event of ‘Great Spirits’. 

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Arvind immediately rushed to the ‘Golden Pride’ hotel where the ‘Great Spirits’ launch had taken place. The hotel was now owned by the citizens’ corporation body and the pub ‘Great Spirits’ had been permanently shut down after the dramatic launch event. All the liquor stores owned by Thakur and Singh had been shut down in Utori as the teachings of Buddha and Gandhi condemned the consumption of alcohol. Even the gambling dens had been completely disbanded, and ‘Golden Pride’ was now a family centric hotel. On enquiring about Manish Kumar, the staff at the reception told Arvind that Kumar had been put up in the hotel for a week before the launch event but had checked out on the day of the launch. Nobody seemed to know about his whereabouts. One of the waiters recollected that on the night before the launch, Thakur and Singh were drinking in Kumar’s room till late night. Now that Thakur was no longer available in town, Arvind knew that the mystery about Manish Kumar could only be solved by meeting Singh.

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Arvind got into his vehicle and made his way to Singh’s residence. The imposing persona of Singh had been replaced by a soft demeanour who was now living a Gandhian way of life. He was now a genuine public-serving politician and had become completely involved in philanthropic deeds. Singh welcomed Arvind inside and offered him tea. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Arvind came straight to the point and enquired with Singh about Manish Kumar. Singh revealed that during the party at Kumar’s hotel suite, Kumar had offered Thakur and him some customised alcohol that had been blended with some unique spirits. Kumar had mentioned to them that he had learnt the art of blending spirits before Independence from a British friend. On being asked about his current location, Singh seemed to have no clue. But, Singh recollected Manish Kumar telling him that he had visited Utori in the past, long back in 1948. “I believe he had come to visit his cousin for a few days,” said Singh. On hearing this, Arvind became completely numb and still. His head started spinning on realising what was going on and it felt as if the ceiling had come crashing down on him. The past flashed right in front of his eyes.

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Manish Kumar had come to Utori five years back on January 25, 1948, to meet his cousin who used to work in one of the factories of Thakur. In the coming few days, Kumar witnessed the plight of the town’s citizens and the excruciating working conditions, which enraged him tremendously. He would argue with his cousin that one must not bend before the goons of Singh and Thakur. Even if one citizen refused to be subservient or pay ‘hafta’ to them, it could start a revolution. “Change can be brought about only through resistance,” said an idealistic Manish Kumar to his cousin. However, his practical and timid cousin requested him to be rational and not do anything risky in his absence. Kumar being a free-spirited person had never conformed or bowed before anyone in his entire life. A staunch Gandhian, he lived by the ideals of the Father of the Nation.

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Not heeding his cousin’s advice, Kumar ventured out in public fearlessly while his cousin was at work. He was sipping tea in a nearby tea shop when he saw the dreaded goons of Singh bulldoze their way into each store and bully everyone. When they entered the tea shop, the owner quietly kept a packet of money on the table as a customary practice. Just when the goons were leaving the shop with the packet, Kumar exclaimed to the owner that he should not get intimidated by these thugs and must stop giving ‘hafta’ to them. On hearing this, the goons turned back and aggressively barged at Kumar. They told him to apologise and threatened him with dire consequences if he didn’t comply. But he refused to apologise even once. After the final defiance, he was dragged out in public and the goons started mercilessly assaulting him. A huge crowd gathered immediately and they witnessed in silence the barbarism unleashed by the goons. Kumar put up a brave fight against the gang of five thugs but they were too strong for him. Not a single soul came to his rescue and the cops were nowhere to be seen as usual. The goons kept on hitting him with rods and kicking him endlessly. After about half an hour of thrashing, Kumar’s body gave up and he lay motionless on the road drenched in blood. As was the custom, nobody uttered a word and everyone left in silence. The body was later taken away by the garbage cleaners. 

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As expected, the ‘Sacch Vijayi’ edition of the following day had no mention of Kumar’s death. No crime had been committed despite Arvind having been part of the spineless crowd that had gathered to witness the savagery. Incidentally, his entire paper was filled with news related to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

Flashes of that gory day of January 30, 1948, came to an end before Arvind’s eyes. It seemed as if Arvind’s present was also coming to an end. By now, he had become breathless. A worried Singh called out his wife and servants. They all rushed to the living room where Arvind was sweating profusely and gasping for breath. Singh’s wife tried to make Arvind drink a glass of water, but in vain. A shivering Arvind collapsed on the floor and lay motionless. 

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Perhaps, he had suffered a mental shock or heart attack…

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