The story had started well before it had begun.
Venkatesh came from a very poor Brahmin family in Sreekrishnapuram. He belonged to a caste that crowned the social hierarchy of India for ages. Legend has it that, in three steps his people had conquered heaven, earth and hell. The holy thread that ran diagonally across his body symbolised intelligence, supreme power and prestige for thousands of years. But today, Venkatesh had to jiggle his pockets a hundred times, just to fish out enough coins for his bus fare. Oddly, the sacred thread today symbolised nothing but tyranny. Though weightless, sometimes it just felt so heavy around him.
Venkatesh held a first class degree in Economics from VTB college but jobs were hard to find. The monsoon of 1999 had taken away a portion of his century-old ancestral house made of clay and wood. Due to this, his family comprising of his ageing parents and three sisters had to squeeze themselves into the main hall which was the only room in the house that provided a decent shelter. Like any Valluvanadan illam, it was an ancestral house that boasted infinite abundance once upon a time. But for Venky (as he was popularly known among friends), it was a decaying structure that symbolised penury and irrelevance of a lost generation.
The family was so hard struck with poverty that Venky’s father had to sell their only cow, Nandini, to a butcher in Vaniyamkulam so that he could afford enough money to pay for Venky’s final semester exam fee. For Venky, it was the most disastrous day in his life. More than a cow, Nandini was family. Every member of the household would share their happiness, laughter and pain with Nandini. She was the silent listener to their sorrow and pain. Venky was not at home when this happened and he had a huge row with his father for doing what he did. He cried a whole week because images of Nandini being slaughtered kept haunting his dreams. He was deeply disturbed, day and night, for things that were happening in his family. Venky almost thought of running away from home. But the innocent faces of his sisters and ageing parents stopped him from doing anything stupid.
But each time…through every struggle, Venky’s mother used to say one thing:
“Venky, Kanna…get a good government job… and all our problems will be solved…you have three sisters to take care and our time is running out. You cannot stay away from home and have to be here. Get a good government job and all our problems will be solved…”
Venky was immensely disturbed by the plight of his family and the worse part was that he could hardly do anything without a degree certificate. Finally, by the grace of god, his internal conflicts died a happy death once he got the degree. He was sure about one thing and that was, he was going to get a government job to put an end to all his problems… once and forever.
As soon as his results were out, Venky dashed towards PSC coaching centres in and around Palakkad and Ottapalam. But disappointment awaited him everywhere in the form of money. The funds required for coaching was by far unaffordable.
” 8000 rupees or there is no place for you….” This was what every front desk girl kept telling him. And Venky, who hardly had coins for bus fare, was shattered by this huge chunk of cash required to grab a government job. At one point in time, he thought about preparing on his own. But Venky was intelligent enough to measure his own ability to train himself. He needed coaching and there was no other way he was going to get a government job. So he decided to try his luck in every fucking PSC Coaching centre in the town.
The best PSC coaching centre in Palakkad was LOTUS and they were very expensive. The lady sitting behind the front desk turned him down even after he told his problems.
“I cannot do anything boy… I’m just an employee… 8000 or no seat…” the lady shrugged. Which literally meant -“Fuck off you beggar boy…”
As Venky walked out of that coaching centre, he saw a very handsome man leaning over an expensive Honda City car just outside the entrance. He was almost 6 feet tall, broad shouldered and had an extremely fair complexion. He was fiddling with a white Nokia 1110 mobile phone and suddenly looked up when Venky was about to cross him. For a fraction of a second, their eyes met. Venky was mesmerised by the other man’s gleaming blue eyes. There was some kind of magic in them… something mysteriously divine. The yellow shirt he wore, the mundu (dhoti) with a golden embroidery work, clean-shaven face with a shade of green, his slick black, well-combed hair and the subtle smile that ran over his lips, all strangely reminded Venky about lord Sree Krishna. For a fretting moment, they smiled at each other. But Venky knew, God existed merely to test him and not help him in any possible way. A permutation and combination of miseries was what god has always thrown at him. Venky knew that happiness was never his destiny.
Even though he knew there was no hope, Venky went from one PSC Coaching centre to another, just to see if he could get some kind of a discount or concession.
After LOTUS, the next was LILY PSC COACHING centre and man in charge of the front office was as ugly as his words. Hard luck hit Venky once again. He was turned down because he could not afford the kind of money they asked for. To his surprise, as he walked out, he saw the handsome man with the Honda City car waiting outside. This time, he was busy talking to someone over the phone. The man pretended not to notice him and Venky followed the suit.
The day was damned in the sense wherever Venky went, the fee they asked for PSC Coaching was unaffordable. The day was so hot that he could not stop himself from buying lemon soda and iced serbath. And by the end of the day, he was two rupees short of bus fare to get back home. There seemed to be no hope and Venky was shattered.
The strange thing was that wherever he went he noticed this strange, good looking , rich fellow following him in his white Honda City. And, when Venky walked out of the final PSC coaching centre in Palakkad town, the man left his car and came towards him. He spoke to Venky softly. Venky was stupefied by his charm. The man introduced himself as Jason Puthanpurakal, a planter from Kalladikode and before Venky could say anything, he spoke:
“I have been watching you all day. I can understand your problems and I’m ready to help you….” and he smiled
“Thank you so much sir…” a tired Venky thanked him meekly.
“I will bear the cost of your PSC Coaching till you get a Government Job Venkatesh… I will pay for all your personal expenses related to this cause…” Jason smiled as he spoke and extended his right hand to Venky.
Venky was almost startled and wondered how this Mr.Jason knew his name. Suddenly, he became alert and hesitant but eventually shook hands with Mr.Jason and smiled at him. Venky could not believe his luck.
An unlucky day had just spun itself to be the luckiest day of his life. Little did Venky know that the day was going to change his destiny forever.
“Thank you… thank you so much …dear sir… I don’t know how to thank you ….” Venky almost cried as he showered his gratitude for this great Mr.Jason who towered like a God in front of him. Venky bent down to touch his feet… but Jason held him and spoke to Venky:
“Yes…you are welcome Venkatesh. But, I will fund your cause if and only if you agree to my conditions…”
Venky was taken aback and stared at Mr.Jason:
“What is it… Sir? What are the conditions…”
“Nothing… once you get a government job, you will have to pay me 1/4 of your salary…every month.”
Venky bit his parched lips and closed his eyes to fathom what the man had just spoken. He then opened his eyes and asked Mr.Jason:
“Yes. Every month. A quarter of your salary…how much ever it maybe. Even your pension. A quarter of it, till you die. Whatever direct monetary benefit you make out of this job, you will be liable to pay me a quarter of it. You are free to run any sort of parallel business and I would not stake my claim in that. No…not a single penny. But, you should never resign from this job…getting promoted is fine but never leave this job…are you ok with my offer Venkatesh?” Mr.Jason flashed one of his godly smiles after saying thus.
Venky listened to the man as if dumbfounded. He could not make up his mind and did not know what to say. Finally, he gathered his nerves and replied:
“Sir, please give me a day’s time to think over and decide…”
“OK. Tomorrow, same place…same time. I will be waiting for you here. ..”
“Sure Sir… thank you for the offer…” and as Venky turned around to leave, Mr.Jason called from behind.
“Venkatesh…this should remain between us…strictly. Not even your shadow should know what happened here today…”
“I promise you Jason Sir… no one will ever know…” Venky promised and Mr.Jason smiled in return.One of those reassuring smiles…like the smile of God himself.
That smile cost Venky his sleep that night. He kept tossing himself in his ragged bed all the time, thinking about what he was supposed to tell Mr.Jason the next day. Venky even thought about waking his father in the middle of the night. He was desperate to discuss his dilemma with someone but then, he decided to act otherwise. He remembered the promise he had made to Mr.Jason, that he won’t let even let his shadow into their secret. Moreover, his father was too proud to let someone else pay for his son’s PSC coaching. By early morning next day, Venky knew that his options were limited.
That day evening, Venky met Mr.Jason.
Mr.Jason was already waiting for Venky in front of the PSC Coaching centre and he looked completely relaxed. The only difference was that he was wearing a red shirt instead of a yellow one. There was a kind of serenity in his face.
As Venky approached, Mr.Jason smiled at him.
“So what did you decide young man?” Jason asked Venky
“I accept your offer Sir…” he replied
Jason gave a penetrating smile…a smile that said he knew what Venky was going to say way ahead of time.
Hence, from the very next day, Venky’s PSC Coaching started in the earnest from one of the top notch centres in Palakkad. Every penny was paid for and every need of his was taken care of by Mr.Jason. Venky started working hard and took it up as a penance to grab a government job at the earliest. More than his commitment towards his family, he felt obliged towards Mr.Jason who was paying for his future. Venky felt really awkward when he came to know that most of the students who trained along with him had no aim to work hard for themselves or their country once they got a government job. They were all sweating hard so that they could chill out in some nondescript government office for the rest of their lives. For Venky, the situation was different. For Venky, a government job was the only solution to save his three sisters, two ageing parents and a house that would fall over their heads any moment. They were all but his sole responsibility.
Strangely, he never met Mr.Jason after that evening. Whenever there was any requirement to remit fee or any financial need, the money would reach him well ahead of the need itself. Venky wondered how Mr.Jason managed to do that. His penniless SBI bank account was now in a better shape with funds that allowed him to concentrate on studies and nothing else.
But finally, after two tiresome long years, he met Mr.Jason again.
Strangely, it was the day he had cracked the Secretariat Assistant Examination. Venky had secured a top-rank in that statewide competitive test. That day evening, Venky was in the PSC Coaching centre with everybody congratulating him on his success. And that’s when he saw Mr.Jason waiting outside his PSC Coaching centre. This time, Jason had a bag in his hand. Venky ran out to meet him and fell onto his feet, but Mr.Jason held him. He hoisted Venky and praised him for his grit and determination. Mr.Jason congratulated Venky with highly motivating phrases and handed over the cover. There was a brand new pair of Raymond Shirts and Trousers.All branded. Venky could not stop his tears from rolling down his cheeks and onto the fine fabric.
Suddenly, Mr.Jason received a call and his smile vanished. As if caught in the middle of some urgency, he walked towards his white Honda City car and opened the door near the driver’s seat. Before getting behind the steering wheel, he summoned Venky with his index finger. Venky ran towards Mr.Jason who slipped a neatly folded white sheet of paper into his pocket. Mr.Jason patted Venky’s shoulder in a matter-of-fact way and then without uttering a word, he started the car and drove off. Venky stood there for a long time and watched the car slip out into the oblivion of that evening, being eaten by the small town traffic.
He took the neatly folded sheet of paper from his pocket and opened it. The words did not shock him exactly, but gave him a tinge of reality:
Remember our agreement. A quarter of your monthly salary should be remitted in the following Bank Account. It should be done without fail. The money should be transferred exactly the day you receive your salary. Defaulting is not an option.
Account No: 398256723456
All the best for a great future and hope we never meet again.
Venky could not comprehend whether those final words meant a nostalgic farewell from a man who nearly equalled god or an outright threat from a stranger who had some kind of control over his life. He was not mature enough to fathom the inner meanings of the civil world.
He read Mr. Jason’s letter one last time before folding it back into his pocket.
“A strange letter for a letter…” Venky thought.
Venky received his posting in Trivandrum. He disposed his property in Sreekrishnapuram and rented a flat near Sreekariyam. The coincidence that both the places had a prefixed “Sree” did not surprise him since prosperity poured down every walk of his life. Venky along with parents and sisters moved into that new city with fresh hopes and new dreams.
The next few years saw the rise and rise of Venkatesh both as a government employee and as a bureaucratic sweetheart The multiple promotions that enabled him to rise up the ranks at lightning speed was a manifestation of his sincerity, intelligence and hard work.
Venky got all his three sisters married into very good families and in a very grand way. The 5th year saw his father’s death and the 6th saw the demise of his mother. Venky fell into depression. He felt all alone in that big city because his workaholic nature hardly earned him any friends. Somehow, his sisters put their heads together and conspired to get their brother married.
They succeeded in convincing Venky to marry a beautiful girl by the name Meenakshi. She belonged to a devout Brahmin family from Kalladi. In another three years, the couple were proud to parent two beautiful little girls, Anjana and Krishna.
Through all his ups and downs… through his happy times and bad times…. through his triumphs and defeats, Venky stuck to his word to Mr.Jason. He transferred 1/4th of his salary to Mr.Jason’s bank account every month. Thick or thin, he never failed to meet this obligation to the man who made his life. This went on for a decade until one fine summer day in March when Meenakshi caught him red handed .
Venky came home late that day and Meenakshi was nothing less than Durga incarnated.
She was silently keeping track of all his financials and she stumbled across this huge financial mismatch between their bills and her husband’s salary. She tried her best to figure out where all the money went but failed miserably to make head or tail of it. Meenakshi was now almost sure that Venky was running a parallel family with another woman and that he was cheating on her.
As soon as Venky got into the house that day, she closed all the doors and windows. Then she raised a hell fire. Meenakshi accused Venky of having an illegitimate relationship with someone since huge chunks of money went missing from his account every month. Puff… it just seemed to vanish. Venky tried to argue and reason with her, but Meenakshi was persistent and wanted to get to the root of this mysterious fund transfers.
“You are having a relationship outside our marriage…. being a Brahmin, do you think that this kind of immoral activity suits you…Do you have any idea that you have two daughters to take care of? Have you ever thought about them even once before squandering your hard earned money? ” Meenakshi went on wailing at the top of her voice. And she kept shouting as if she would not stop until her vocal chords would burst. Venky could not hold back anymore and he knew it was time for him to give in. A long kept secret will not remain a secret anymore.
There was no way out. Venky prepared himself to reveal the truth. And then, it was a complete mess.
#PART_3 : One man. One face. And a hundred names.
Venky finally gave in and revealed his little secret to his wife Meenakshi and she could not believe her ears. At the same time, Venky felt guilty for breaking his promise to Mr.Jason that he would never let anybody into their little pact, not even his own shadow
Meenakshi was much stronger than Venky expected. She meddled into the issue with all her strength and a vehemence unlike anything that Venky had ever seen in his entire life.
“From next month onwards you are not gonna give a single penny to this Mr.Jason…not a single penny….” she argued hard.
“But I have to keep my promise Meenu…” Venky tried to retort meekly. But his arguments were nothing more than squeaks coming out a mouse trapped in the jaws of a ferocious cat.
“OK. Fine. You keep your promise and I’m leaving you…this very moment…and I will be taking our daughters along with me…” Meenakshi resolved and Venky shuddered.
Like every household, ulitimately it was the house captain who won every argument. And in this case, it was Meenakshi. Venky had to give up . There was no other go but to agree to Meenakshi’s conditions.
Venky was disturbed throughout what remained of the month. Slowly, everybody started noticing unusual changes in him. Sullen eyes, unshaven face, erratic mood swings and most importantly, many found him taking solace in alcohol, sitting alone in the Officer’s Club near Pattom.That was completely unbecoming of Venky and his colleagues and subordinates genuinely started getting concerned towards him.
The only friend he seemed to have in the secretariat was one Mr.Raghuram. Raghuram and Venky joined the government service almost at the same time. They both had similar upbringings, similar family backgrounds and both of them worked their way to the top with grit and determination. One day, it became too much for Venky to bear and he went with Mr.Raghuram for a drink in the Officer’s Club. Over the drink, Venky spilled the beans on Mr.Jason to Raghuram. To his surprise, Raghuram also had a similar story to tell.
“So what is your story Raghuram?” Venky asked with mounting curiosity in his voice.
Raghuram’s story was nothing different. He wanted to get a government job but hardly had cash to join any coaching centre. Raghuram had given up all hopes but then, a very good looking man with a white Honda City car came to his rescue. He introduced himself as Mr.David Muloorkadan, a planter from Pala. And, as with Venky, the stranger funded all his studies till Raghuram cracked the PSC exam. The only difference was that Raghuram took 5 long years to clear it. He was not as lucky as Venky to pass the exam during the first attempt. Even after numerous attempts, he was unable to get into government service. But then finally, he did crack the exam. Back then, it was kind of unbelievable for Raghuram since it was the worst exam he ever wrote. He was damn sure that he scored exceptionally low, but then mysteriously he did crack the exam.
“The bastard lobbied for you Raghu… Damn!!!” Venky almost shouted over his beer.
“Yeah…now I understand how I got this job. But how the fuck did he…” Raghuram shrugged and slammed his beer glass on the table with a thud. The people sitting around them in the nearby tables were startled for a moment. They all threw eager glances towards Venky and Raghuram, expecting one of those rare beurocratic brawls. Usually, fists flew between PWD guys and Water Authority guys since both ransacked or blew up each others hard work. Today, they were disappointed since Venky and Raghuram were on the same page.
Anyways, the only difference in Raghuram’s case was that the name of the mystery man was Mr.David. Except for his name, the general description of the person matched to near exactness in both their cases. By the end of their drinking session, Venky was cocksure that Mr.Jason and Mr.David was one. It was an eye opener for both Venky and Raghuram.
Next day in office meant business for Raghuram and Venky. The only point was that it was all too personal and too secretive. They dug into it and dug at it hard. New names surfaced in the secretariat and other important public offices in and around Trivandrum every day for the next two weeks. By the end of that month, Venky and Raghuram drew up a list of 100 government employees, all belonging to various departments. They all belonged to different age groups, different religion, different castes and belonged to different districts in the state of Kerala.
Other than being government servants, there was one thing… just one thing that connected them all. And that was, they all came from very very poor background. They all belonged to the lowest of the lowest socio-economic stratum before they were called in as public servants by the Government of Kerala.
Each of them had got the same letter from Mr.Jason, but with a different bank account to deposit money into. For Koya from Malappuram, the mystery man was Mr.Hameed Arrakal. For Alex Chandi from Kottayam, he was Mr.Eldho Elias. For Sumithra from Kannur he was Mr.Mahadevan Kartha.
One man. One face. And a hundred names.
Venky and Raghuram were dumbfounded.
Who was he? What was he? And what was his real motive? Nobody had an answer.
None of them saw him once they got their job and nobody ever dared to be a defaulter. In a way, they all loved him more than they feared him.
Venky and Raghuram sent out an exclusive invitation for a secret meeting to each of those 100 employees.
On the 31st of March, they all held a clandestine meeting in Kovalam and came to a unanimous conclusion that they were dealing with a criminal mastermind. They all had met the same man with the same offer at different points in time. They also made a collective decision to stop depositing money into the stranger’s account anymore. Many did raise the point of going to the Police, but then decided otherwise. They would wait for the salary day to pass before taking any drastic step in those directions. Somehow, nobody fancied getting their hands dirty by stepping on to the murkier side of the law and Police.
Finally, the D-day for the employees arrived in high tension.
April 1st… the salary day for most of the government staffs. Venky kept his fingers crossed and did not make the usual transaction into Mr.Jason’s account. The other employees followed suit as per the resolution in the secret meeting. The day went without an incident.
Venky and Raghuram deemed the matter to have ended there. They drank to their full that evening to celebrate this newfound sense of freedom. And yeah…nothing happened that day. And the next…and the next.
The day in office went fine as usual for Venky on April 4th as well. Even though Venky was bogged down with work that day and was late to leave the office, he was happy that there was no trace of Mr.Jason so far. It was as if Mr.Jason had started to vanish from his sphere of thoughts.
“Maybe he is dead…or left the country altogether.Now, who cares…” Venky thought gleefully.
But, as he left for the day and approached the parking lot walking towards his car, he caught a glimpse of the very same white Honda City car. Initially hebthought he was just imagining things. But no, it was all too real to be mere hallucinations. The white HONDA CITY was parked right next to his red WV Polo. And standing in front of it was Mr.Jason. The very same Mr.Jason he had met more than a decade earlier. The very same Mr.Jason who made him what he was. For a fretting moment, Venky felt his heartbeat was completely arrested by the magnanimity of what He was seeing. He felt as if his heart had jumped out into his mouth and then, he tried swallowing it hard.
Mr.Jason looked up and then, he smiled.