For Madhav Rao, the former minister of roads and transport, the day began after a night of excesses- a veritable feast with the best that could be brewed with the young nubile lass served as the dessert. His wife was away and most men who had the power and money and less worry about doing right by the spouse or society, spent the night in his palatial farm house. The girl, a quarter of his age, was seen off by the secretary after paying her some money for both her efforts and for her silence. For the poverty stricken villagers, morality was a luxury and any money that put food on the plate was a welcome proposition. Moreover, they learnt it early on that it was both impossible and foolhardy to stand up to the powerful. It was not unheard of hearing about a fatal accident caused to those who were foolish enough to thwart the wants and needs of the powerful who either were in politics or had political backing. Lower the caste they were born into, the more vulnerable they turned out to be.
Quite ironically, he acquired this farmhouse during his tenure as a road and transport minister. As an erstwhile agricultural minister, it was believed that he had acquired a luxury van besides, huge tracts of land. Agrarian distress and farmer’s suicide fetched him votes during elections but for the rest of the time, he didn’t worry too much about their fate. The opposition party made noise; often baying for his blood but nothing much could be proved except maybe half a dozen cases filed against him in courts which had to be heard yet.
This farm house was a gift by the contractor who was happy that his tender was accepted and he was awarded the contract for constructing a couple of underpasses and over bridges across railway level crossings. He was also awarded the contract for major repair works on all arterial roads. The contractor managed to earn back the farm house and other expenses that he had to incur by simply dragging the construction of a couple of underpasses for over four years in areas that had people who were meeker. That along with cutting corners by way of sub-standard materials and the use of unskilled manpower was sufficient to make huge profits and line innumerable pockets. In an over-populated country where common people are fatalistic by nature and are used to hardship, they go through life adjusting. The apathy is a part of the mental make-up and many do not have the luxury to fight when the mere struggle to make a living is overwhelming. The whole system is lopsided and could easily be taken advantage of.
He was about to get into his car and heard his secretary’s cry, ‘accident..madam, Bhuji.*’. He turned to see him running towards him with an out-stretched phone, his tear-stained face ashen. Patting his own phone which was in his pocket, he realized he had forgotten to switch it back on.
On hearing the endearment, Rao’s felt a cold fist squeeze his heart for he knew that whatever it was that caused such an adverse reaction, it was related to his daughter, the proverbial apple of his eye. If there was one thing Madhav cared for more than money, it was his only daughter, his hope, his Asha*. She would always be his little one despite her being eighteen and he could never remember to call her by her given name much to her irritation. She would pout and say, ‘Naana*, don’t call me bhuji*, in front of my friends.”
Today, he promised to all the Gods that he would call her whatever she wished if only she survives the accident. A loose mortar from B. R Ambedkar* over bridge had fallen on the car his wife and his daughter were travelling in…the car turned turtle as the driver had lost control.
They were taken to the best hospital where she was fighting to stay alive. The report from the hospital authorities seemed to be sketchy.
He got into the car and used the choicest profanities directed at the central government for dispensing with the red beacon light atop the car which had hitherto paved the way for all dignitaries. “Which is the most direct route to the hospital” he barked at his driver.
The driver used to the churlishness of his boss hesitated for he knew that the under bridge named after the great Sir Visvesvaraya, the Engineer par Excellence was a disgrace to his name. It might be the most direct but most probably it would be flooded thanks to the overnight rain. He braved the temper of his boss and suggested that they take the longer route as it might eventually be faster despite the detour. Rao, who never knew the difficulties of the common man despite being their minister said, “You bloody well listen to what I say and when I say direct, go through that underpass!”
And they found themselves stuck..truly stuck among the debris, stagnant water cars in front and cars behind them with no room to manoeuvre. With horror, Rao noticed the swirling water around him and stuck out his hand to open the door.
“Sir, I wouldn’t if I were you,” said the driver with unusual force. “You might be lynched and I can’t protect you! These people have been battling this torture every time it rains and they wouldn’t be in any mood to be charitable considering this sorry excuse of an underpass took four years in making. ”
Light dawned on Madhav Rao when he realized that this underpass was one of the many projects for which he had received kick-backs. He realized with growing horror that the Ambedkar* over bride was also by the same contractor.
He was not an atheist but though he believed vaguely in Karmic retribution because he grew up listening to his grandmother’s stories, he did not fear them. As he grew more powerful, he felt larger than God. The obeisance of people around him, the ability to sway people with his oratory skills made him feel omniscient. Putting his head in his hands, he prayed to the higher power that he would turn a good man, serve the electorate if his daughter would survive. He prayed that he would set right the wrong….but could he? Would he be allowed to? The party’s high command would never allow him for then their complicity would be made public. They naturally wouldn’t like to provide ammunition to the press and opposition parties.
Also published in Reedsy for the prompt: Write about someone trying to atone for a mistake they’ll never be able to fix.