Rajesh* looks at me and flashes his trademark smile. He is standing in our kitchen, sipping the tea Mom makes for him every morning when he delivers our milk supply for the day. For anyone else, this wouldn’t be unusual. But Rajesh is not your usual kind of person. He shouldn’t even be here. The fact that he is, and indeed the tale of how he is still here, is an extraordinary story of trust, betrayal, redemption and love.
My father used to be one of the most prominent retail liquor dealers in Mumbai. Papa had worked very hard to reach where he did, expanding his business from a half-shop in Chembur to a chain of ten wine shops across Mumbai. Eventually he sold all of them and exited the liquor business altogether. My maternal grandparents stayed in the same residential complex as us. At around the same time that my dad was building his business, a destitute Gujarati lady named Hemal* was provided shelter by my maternal grandparents along with her two small sons, Suresh* and Rajesh. Short and stocky, Hemal was a hard worker and started selling milk to members of our society. Her efforts paid off, and a few years later she managed to buy a small home in a nearby area. My father employed her sons Suresh and Rajesh in his shop as soon as they were in their late teens.
The normal practice for all shop managers was to bring the cash collected from the business along with details of sales and purchases home, where my father would examine the accounts and then deposit the cash in the bank the next day. One late evening, things did not go as planned. Dattaram, whom I had earlier written about, was given the responsibility of bringing the pouch containing the money and papers home from the shop in which he worked. As he entered our residential complex, two youth accosted him with a chopper, grabbed the pouch and ran away. A frail character, Dattaram ran to our home in panic and reported what had just happened. He identified one of them as Vikas Chalke, a known history-sheeter who stayed in a chawl just behind our society. We lodged a police complaint and Vikas was picked up. On interrogation, he broke down and named Rajesh as the brains behind the robbery. Rajesh was the second person. He had planned everything down to the last detail and they had split the cash 50:50.
And that was the first time Rajesh landed behind bars. He quickly admitted to the crime and even gave details of how he had spent the money, and part of it was recovered from his home. Hemal was shattered. She begged my parents to forgive him. Rajesh too sought forgiveness and promised to reform. Seeing her cry bitterly, my parents decided to withdraw the complaint and give Rajesh another chance. He went back to work in the shop, while Vikas Chalke plunged deeper and deeper into the world of crime.
A few years later, yet another robbery took place in much the same manner as the first one. This time, it was Rajesh who was mugged as he was bringing the money pouch home. He had been slashed with blades. My uncle, a police officer, questioned him on what had happened. Rajesh narrated that he had been out for some task and then was assaulted by two persons when he was returning home. Uncle was convinced that Rajesh was telling the truth, until my longstanding maid remarked, “but he was here at home at the time he says he had been out”. After a few slaps, Rajesh confessed. He had taken the money and slashed himself to create an alibi. And Rajesh went back behind bars again. This time, too, my parents’ respect for Hemal overcame everything else and the complaint against Rajesh was withdrawn. But he was not taken back into employment and disappeared from the scene.
In those days, it was common for goods to be delivered by “haathgaadi” – a hand-drawn cart that needed to be pulled by two persons to the destination. This was extremely physically demanding and low paying work. My brother received one such shipment of goods in the shop, and was surprised to see that the cart was being drawn by Rajesh, who cheerfully greeted him. They chatted for a while and he left after refusing to accept any payment for his labour. My brother came home and narrated what had happened to my parents. They were deeply moved at his condition and decided that Rajesh had finally reformed.
My mother, a leading advocate, employed him in her office. This time, he was kept away from money. Whatever be his faults, Rajesh was polite, very hardworking, and had a way with words and people. He proved to be a valuable resource. He had a knack of developing a good rapport with various local government officials and getting work done quickly. It was not uncommon to see him going out of his way to buy pakodas and vada pav for others, at his own expense. He was always willing to work hard and for long hours, and would never say no for any task. Mother soon came to depend on him once again. And her faith in him was sadly to be shattered once again. This time, Rajesh stole some money kept locked in a drawer. He did not break the lock, but cleverly removed all drawers above the locked one to access the money. He removed only a few hundred rupees at a time so that it would not be noticed. The theft was discovered several days later. And Rajesh was removed from his job for the third time.
For any ordinary person, the story would be over for good. But this, as I said earlier, is an extraordinary one. Redemption for Rajesh would eventually come out of a great personal tragedy. A few years later, Hemal developed cancer. She went down very fast and died within a few months of diagnosis. Rajesh was very attached to his mother. On her death bed, she made him give a promise: never to steal again. And Rajesh kept his word. He took over her milk delivery business and engaged himself fully in it. He has done reasonably well in maintaining the business. He wakes up at 3AM to receive milk supplies, completes his deliveries by 7AM, and then works the full day in my mother’s office. Yes, she re-employed him. It has been over twenty years.
As much as this is a story of Rajesh and his transformation, it is also a peek into the minds of two extraordinary people: my parents, who are living examples of kindness, love and forgiveness in action. I cannot imagine anyone who would re-employ a thief hoping he had reformed, but my parents did it – thrice. “Rajesh is like our child, he has grown up in front of our eyes. How can we ever forget…” Forget that this child is a robber and a thief? “But he has promised to reform and not do it again” – and you believe him? “Yes, because he loved his mother very dearly”. And they were right. They believed the promise he gave to his own mother, and he lived up to it.
Rajesh eventually earned enough to buy a home in a residential building and live an average middle-class life. He married and had two daughters. But he was soon faced with immense personal grief once again. The municipal authorities demolished his home in the middle of the monsoons as the structure was declared unsafe. He was forced to move into a tent in the compound of his building. He took this cheerfully, and we never heard him complain even once. His elder daughter eloped and disappeared. Broken, he declared that she was dead for him, and took it to an extreme by shaving his head and performing her “shraadh” (last rites). As if this weren’t enough, his younger daughter had an affair and soon became pregnant. And here, we came face to face with some aspects of Rajesh’s personality that lifted him much beyond the ordinary. He stood by his daughter as she delivered a baby out of wedlock, and showered all his love and affection on the child. He continued to love and support his daughter as he always had, and she still stays with him. The kind, warm and generous heart of a once incorrigible thief shone brightly with the light of complete and utter redemption.
As I said, this is an extraordinary tale. Ratnakar the dacoit can turn into Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, but it happens so very rarely. If it were not for the kindness and patience of my parents and his own love for his mother, Rajesh Waghela* could easily have become another Vikas Chalke and spent the rest of his life in and out of jail between crimes. Most people will not reform because they don’t want to. Many cannot as they do not get another opportunity. But once in a lifetime, you meet a person who gets and squanders several opportunities before seizing one, and then lifts his life beyond the ordinary with it. Rajesh is one such person. And that is why he is standing in our kitchen, grinning at me as he sips his morning tea.
(Names have been changed to protect privacy)