The birds started chirping, announcing the impending arrival of dawn. Raghu walked along the lush green fields, shivering pleasantly in the early morning chill. He reached the river-bank and sat down. The first rays of the day lit the gently flowing water with a golden hue. These were exactly what Raghu missed in his life as the CEO of an e-commerce company in Mumbai.
He stretched and lit a cigarette. Raghu didn’t dare try smoke in front of his grandfather. At an age of eighty eight, his grandfather still could swim against the current in the river. He climbed coconut trees and cycled twenty five kilometres to the next village every afternoon to meet his friends for tea. Grandfather was respected by the village and feared by the young ones in his house.
Raghu took a deep drag of the cigarette, enjoying the picturesque setting in front of him. He thought about the never ending days at work, the continuous pressure from the investors, and their diminishing market share against bigger and more aggressive international firms.
He’d been drinking a lot lately, smoking more than three packs daily, and hadn’t seen the inside of a gym in nearly six months. Dark circles covered his eyes, he had a healthy gut for the first time in his life, and his skin bore the sickly pallor of someone who hadn’t been outside in ages. Raghu sighed, flicked his cigarette into the river and reached into his pack for another when he was startled by a grunt. There was only one person in the world who grunted like that.
‘The river is a water source, Raghu. Don’t throw these cigarette butts in it,’ His grandfather sat beside him. He was wearing a white banyan vest and a white dhoti. He didn’t look at his grandson, but stared intently towards the sunrise.
‘I’m sorry, Grandpa! I didn’t see you coming.’ Raghu replaced the cigarette inside the pack.
‘So, it’s ok for you to pollute the river if I wasn’t around?’
‘I didn’t mean it that way, grandpa. I’m sorry!’
His grandfather retrieved a small neem branch from inside the folds of his dhoti and started brushing his teeth with it, ‘Have you brushed your teeth, Raghu?’
‘Not yet, grandpa! I’m yet to have my first coffee for the day. My system cannot work without coffee. I’ll have coffee on the way home at Govindan’s shop. I usually brush my teeth just before I take bath.’
‘But, it’s ok to smoke first thing in the morning?’ His grandfather went back to brushing his teeth, letting Raghu stew in uncomfortable silence.
‘Grandpa, I’ll take your leave. I have some work to do!’ Raghu stood up.
‘Raghu, please sit down with me. You have become very busy these days. I don’t get to see you that often. In fact, last I saw you was almost three years ago. I thought you had forgotten about me.’
Raghu complied and sat down cross-legged on the grass. ‘Grandpa, I’ve been very busy. There’s a lot of stress involved with my work. We are on the verge of a takeover by a multinational giant. There will be a lot of jobs cut if that happens. We are not sleeping, but we do have nightmares.’
Grandpa spat a gob of spit and resumed brushing, ‘Tell me this, Raghu. Is your job under threat if this foreign company buys yours?’
‘My head will be the first to fall, grandpa.’ Raghu’s hand went to his pocket, ‘I’m sorry, but I need a smoke.’
‘You don’t need my permission to smoke, Raghu. You are a grown man.’
Raghu nodded and lit his second cigarette of the morning. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the sickly delicious smoke and blew out with a sigh.
‘How is your health, Raghu?’
‘It’s fine, grandpa! Cardio needs a bit of improvement though.’
‘Tell me about your life in Bombay. Do you know, I have been to Bombay once? I think it was in 1939. I was nine years old then.’
‘Things have changed a lot since then, grandpa! For a start, it’s no longer Bombay, but Mumbai.’
Grandfather just smiled.
‘My life is good, grandpa. I finished my MBA from IIM-A, the best college in India, became CEO at 28, I earn an eight figure salary, and I drive a Ferrari.’
‘…and yet, here you are, away from all the riches of your fairy tale life smoking on the riverbank.’
‘It’s just a F5 press, grandpa!’ He looked at the older man’s puzzled face, ‘I needed few days to refresh myself. That’s all!’
‘Raghu, be honest to yourself. Are you happy with your life and lifestyle?’
‘You are not yet 30, but you look like a forty-five year old man. You walk with a hunched back and you are out of breath by the time you climb twenty stairs. What are you doing with your life?’
‘It’s just a phase! Once this takeover threat is gone, I’ll start hitting the gym.’
‘What if this foreign company succeeds and you are out of a job?’
‘Well, it’ll be back to basics then. Start afresh somewhere new. I still have a reputation.’
‘Raghu, let me tell the story of your great-grandfather, my father. He was an active participant in the Freedom and Youth Revolution Movement in the 1920’s. He was fourteen when he got married and just eighteen when I was born.’
Raghu nodded. He had heard this story from his father before.
‘My father believed in Non-violence. That’s why he leaned towards Gandhi-ji’s movement. In April 1930, Gandhi-ji decided to march to Dandi for the salt satyagraha. The British had taken over our salt production and the locals were forced to pay a salt tax. My father took part in the Vedaranyam Salt march under the leadership of Rajaji. He was arrested and died in prison due to Police brutality soon after.’
‘I know this story, grandpa.’
‘Of course, you do. But the story is not important. What do you infer from it?’
‘Fight for your right?’
‘Yes, but it’s not the fight I want you to focus on. It’s about leadership. My father was eighteen when he died. But before he died, he marched against the might of the British Empire. Does any eighteen year old have that sort of guts these days?’
‘Maybe! But you have to consider the circumstances as well.’
‘Raghu, the British ruled our country for four hundred years. But, why do we call Gandhi-ji ‘The Father of Our Nation’? It was his leadership that turned the tide. It made an eighteen year old village boy to leave his wife and new-born child and march towards his death. The likes of Gandhi-ji and Rajaji did not bury their frustrations in cigarette smoke or alcohol. They faced their challenges head on. Now, tell me, will you get another job if you lose this one?’
‘What about the other people who might lose their jobs? Will they find alternate employment?’
‘Most of them, yes.’
‘Then what do you worry about? Face your challenges head on. If you win, great. If you lose, accept it with grace.’
‘My reputation will take a hit, grandpa.’
‘Raghu, do you realize that you have earned enough money already to retire if you want to? This corporate job is not everything. Give back to your people. Open a school in a village like ours. Bring the computers and internet here. Revolutionize farming. Make these people understand that their daughters are as good as their sons. If you desire it, there are many things that you can do. Be the type of leader that even eighteen year olds from village would want to follow. Even a long journey or a march begins with a single step. Be brave enough to take that step. ’
Raghu smiled and got up. He will handle the takeover to the best of his ability. He had made his mind up. Whether the takeover goes through or not, he was going to be done with that life.
‘Thanks, Grandpa. I guess I’ll be seeing you very soon.’
Grandfather smiled and patted his shoulder, ‘I know that you can make a difference, Raghu. I’m proud of you. Now, can I have a cigarette?’
Raghu whirled around in shock, ‘Grandpa, do you smoke?’
The old man smiled genially, ‘Why do you think I cycle twenty-five kilometres daily to the next village?’