Saturday Story 19: Time to Pay Back
The weather was pleasant, with pitter-patter rain drops. It was one of those days when Bangalore really felt like a hill station. Rajgopal was returning home early, enticed by a picture sent by his wife Shilpa. Fresh medhu wadas – sizzling with oomph – in a kadhaai full of oil. A rare treat not to be missed. As he turned his Honda City into the parking lot, the phone rang.
“Hello,” said a guttural voice, from an unlisted number. He knew who it was, but why?
“Yes,” replied Rajgopal, cautiously. It was not a person who could be ignored.It was a short conversation, with Rajgopal mostly saying sari, sari. Okay, yes, I will be there.
By the time he’d reached apartment 14B of Buena Vista Towers, all the excitement had gone.
Shilpa knew ‘something was wrong’ but she kept her focus on serving the evening snack. Indeed, the plump and crispy wadas with tangy sambhar and melt-in-the-mouth chutney lifted Rajgopal’s mood. He actually smiled, as he spilt the beans…
“You won’t believe who just called me!” he said to her. “Prabhakar.”
Shilpa sharply drew in her breath. This, was quite unexpected. It had been years since they had met Prabhakar, or even thought about him. The man who’d made their lives a living hell. She squeezed Rajgopal’s hand, assuring him of her constant support. He looked at her with grateful eyes, just as he had all those years ago…
They were newly married. He was a fresh graduate of IIM Calcutta, working for a small IT company called Xipro. She was a Mount Carmel girl, working in the marketing department of Deccan Herald. Rajgopal was surprised at how such a beautiful and accomplished girl had agreed to marry a nerd like him. Thank God there were matrimonial columns those days, not dating apps!
This was before Karan Johar films had corrupted South Indian weddings. So they had a simple ceremony, and that was that. The couple moved into a small apartment in Koramangala and were enjoying the honeymoon phase. When, one fine day, Prabhakar entered their lives. He was waiting outside Rajgopal’s office at M G Road.
“I need to talk to you,” he said in what certainly felt like an unfriendly tone.
Rajgopal was baffled. He had no idea who this guy was, but he seemed to be a small-time goon. His intuition was correct. Prabhakar was a ‘collection agent’ but what was he trying to collect.
“Your father owes my boss money… lots of money… it’s time to pay back.”
Rajgopal’s head was reeling – how was this possible? His father was in Mysore, running a small factory which manufactured electronics parts… the same set of clients, year after year. Why would appa take a loan, and if he had done so, why was Rajgopal being kept in the dark. The amount? 12 lakhs. My God, that was a lot of money back then!
That evening Rajgopal had a long conversation with Appa, and the whole story came pouring out. Yes, the business had suffered a loss, so he’d taken a loan to tide over. Expecting to pay it back soon, so nobody would be the wiser. But it hadn’t worked out that way. 3 years later, the exorbitant rate of interest, compounded with the principal, had turned into a small mountain of debt.
“I am sorry, Raju,” said appa. “But I didn’t want to disturb your studies, or your marriage prospects.”
With a pounding heart, Rajgopal shared his secret with Shilpa, not knowing what to expect. Would she be sad, or angry, or even regret having married this guy with such a big liability?
“Raj,” she said, in a soft voice, “It’s okay. We will find a way out of this mess.”
For the next 3 months, they tightened their belts. No Pizza Hut, no Pantaloons… Rajgopal had set his heart on buying a Santro car, on their first anniversary. It would no longer be possible. On the 1st day of every month, he would meet Prabhakar outside Atithi Anand Bhavan, and hand over an envelope stuffed with cash.
On such days, the aroma of freshly prepared tiffin wafted out of the restaurant, tempting passers-by. But Rajgopal firmly resisted. A plate of medhu wada and filter coffee would set him back by Rs 12, and he could no longer afford the indulgence. Life, which had seemed so full of promise, was suddenly dreary and bleak.
At the end of the 3rd month, while heading home in the KSRTC bus, Rajgopal had a flash of insight. Based on their current salaries – no matter how frugally they lived – it would take 20 years to get out of this mess. By then, they would be middle-aged, pot-bellied and cynical. Is this what I slogged for at IIM?
“There must be some other way… and I will find it,” he thought.
Every morning, Rajgopal tucked the newspaper under his arm and headed to work. That Monday he glanced through the Ascent supplement of The Times of India and spotted an advertisement. ABC Consultants was calling for resumes from IIM graduates with less than 5 years of experience, for an international assignment.
4 months later, Rajgopal and Shilpa were on a plane to Chicago, which was to be their home for the next 12 years. Before leaving, there had been a ‘one time settlement’ with Prabhakar, a loan taken to pay off the loan. But earning in US dollars made all the difference. Loan number two was fully and completely paid off in 2 years flat.
“This is the life….” Rajgopal thought to himself on a lazy Sunday, as he lounged on the leather sofa of his suburban home. With his two kids jumping around, on the front lawn.
Yet, a year later, he sold the 4 bedroom house in Arlington, Ilinois and took a plane back home. There was a fantastic opportunity – to become the CEO of Edutech, a fast-growing startup. Shilpa was also keen to move back to India – the kids should grow up in their own country, she felt. Besides, both sets of parents were growing old.
And it had been a wise decision. The kids loved both their school and living in a gated complex, with so many friends to play with. Shilpa was pursuing her passion for dance, teaching Kathak from the comfort of her home. And Rajgopal was nicely settled in his new job, though one could never ‘settle’ in a startup. There was always one fire or another to keep you on your toes.
This Prabhakar fellow’s phone call was an unexpected googly. Maybe he had seen the recent write-up in The Economic Times, which featured Rajgopal, with photo. He regretted giving the interview. I mean, who cares what books a CEO reads? As if anyone reads in the age of Netflix! But then who would think Prabhakar read the pink papers…
“It must be money, what else,” Rajgopal mused. “Maybe he heard about our stake sale…”
There was no reason to fear, for there was no skeleton in Rajgopal’s closet. No affair with a secretary, no embezzlement of funds. But somehow, it brought back painful memories. Of a past which he thought had been left behind.
There was nothing to be done but to face one’s worst nightmare.
Rajgopal was sitting in a coir chair, looking out at the rolling greenery. He had come to the venue early. The Karnataka Golf Association was a tranquil place, and his favourite venue for meetings.
From the corner of his eye, he spotted a swarthy man stride into the restaurant. There were two musclemen accompanying him, who remained at the entrance.
It was Prabhakar version 2.0. White safari suit, gold chain and half a dozen astrological rings. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the brown Bata sandal.
“Hello saar,” he drawled, extending a hairy arm for a handshake. “How are your wife and kids… And how you are finding namma Bengaluru after living in USA?”
Well, it looked like the man had done his due diligence…
“I was so happy to see your photo in Times of India,” said Prabhakar. “I knew at once, it is the same Rajgopal!”
A drop of sweat had appeared on the CEO’s brow.
“Immediately I thought of contacting you,” added Prabhakar, even as he waved his hand and summoned the waiter. “What you will have, eh?”
Why face even a demon on an empty stomach! Rajgopal ordered a filter coffee and medhu wada.
Prabhakar was relating the story of his life, how in the last 15 years, Lady Luck had shined on him. He had become a builder, and a fixer. He no longer bothered with the small fry… Big industrialists picked up his call at the first ring, he was invited to the weddings in their family. Even the CM occasionally reached out, when he had a ‘job’.
Rajgopal bit into the medhu wada, softened by sambhar, as he braced himself for the demand.
“Sar…,” said Prabhakar, in a softer tone. “I am starting a school in my village, saar. You are the most educated person I know. Will you guide me, saar?”
The goon was looking at the CEO with eyes that pleaded for understanding.
“First time in my life… I am trying to do something good,” Prabhakar whispered.
In his eyes, there was sincerity, and humility. Rajgopal reached out and patted the man’s shoulder.
“Tell me more…”
4 years later, as reported by The Economic Times:
The Adhunika Yuga Primary School in Aladakatti village of Haveri district has set a new standard in rural education with its innovative pedagogy and child-centric curriculum.
Employees of Edutech, led by their CEO P Rajgopal, volunteer at the school on rotation basis.
“We see it not as CSR but PSR – Personal Social Responsibility.”
For it takes a constant gardener for the roses to bloom. And the weeds nipped – right in the bud.
Don’t miss the audio file: Inside the Author’s Mind: Why I wrote ‘Time to Pay Back’