Thursday, August 27, 2009
Open Magazine feature: The Curious Case of Shobhalal vs Shobhalal
The first time police knocked on Shobhalal’s door to arrest him for getting drunk and being a nuisance, he was taken aback. It couldn’t have been him, he said.
Was he Shobhalal, baap ka naam (father's name) Rampratap, they asked. Yes, he said, but he wasn’t the man they wanted. They beat him anyway on principle and threw him in jail for a bit.
They came again, for drunken brawling. Then again, for some other offense. He didn’t argue when they returned. Nor did he resist. Not because it was futile to protest, to resist the police, but because he was by then aware there was some truth to the allegations. Shobhalal had been drunk; Shobhalal had fought; Shobhalal had misbehaved - only it wasn’t him.
Out there was a man with his name, his job, his money, and his life. A man whose wife had the same name as his own. He knew all this, but who would believe him?
Shobhalal’s story was ripe for fictional adaptation, and that is where it gained fame. He first turned up as Mohandas in the writer Uday Prakash’s book of the same name; a man floundering in a hellish limbo. Now, in an adaptation just as sunny, Mohandas will appear on film. There is no hope for him, no permanent respite. The appearance of happiness usually presages a cruel joke. In Shobhalal’s case the last twenty years have been one cosmic prank.
Shobhalal’s troubles really began when his father pulled him out of school. His ancestors had lived in Gunwaari peacefully for over 200 years, and he wasn’t the kind to rock that boat. No, he liked things steady. The familiarity of this village - on the eastern edge of Madhya Pradesh - was comforting. Not much happened here - good or bad. Things would remain as they had been. That was how Shobhalal saw it.
He still doesn’t know why his father, Rampratap, an educated man, sent him to the family fields. He wasn’t curious. Tilling land and waiting for rain gave him peace. When it rained the field grew dhaan, a grain that is at once rice and roti and dal to farmers. There was little else a son could do around Gunwaari. The public works department paid a pittance. The region’s open cast mines, rich in coal, hired men like it was a lottery. Of course, in the eighties a job at the local colliery paid handsomely, and most men would jump to it if they were offered an assignment there. So he borrowed a few hundred rupees and signed up as a candidate. But Shobhalal was also happy in his fields, and if there was no response he would not have bothered.
Gunwaari men aspired to work for open cast mines in the neighborhood at the time. A mining assignment made such a stark difference to their lives that it became a destination - few men looked beyond the region. Even today, connected by a web of roads, villagers refer to the nearby town of Anuppur, only 25 kilometers away, as ‘over there’ and ‘outside’. So in 1988, shortly before his life turned on its head, Shobhalal’s world was here, in the village he understood, on lanes that turned to gushing rivers of mud when God was generous.
Early on a Saturday morning in May 1988, Shobhalal, a slim and square-jawed man with large eyes and an attractive smile, took a bus to the Jamuna colliery. He was, by his own rough estimate, 28 years old. Dressed in a white shirt, he held an interview letter inviting him to the colliery. He found that the interview consisted of few words. After a picture taken against a cloth drape, Shobhalal was directed to the business end of the interview; namely, hoisting a 50-kilo load of coal on his shoulders and carrying it a certain distance. He readied himself. He bent forward and lifted the weight with one jerk. The momentum of the weight, coupled with his poor stance, sent him staggering backward wide-eyed, and he landed with a terrible crash. Concerned men rushed to him. “I’m fine,” he brushed them away. “That was heavy!” His interviewers gave him one more try, but he refused, saying it was impossible. Shobhalal returned to life in quiet Gunwaari, where things had always been the same.
The regional coal mine employment department threw him a second chance the following year. He was summoned for another interview for a laborer’s job to Dhanpuri. This time he managed to lift the weight and keep his balance. He went home happy. A joining letter arrived soon after. Shobhalal did not know what it said, but he knew the letter would change his life, and so he carried it gingerly into a dark inner room and kept it on a mud shelf. He planned to take it to the regional office to understand fully the letter’s contents in a few days. The celebration at home went on for long.
Shobhalal is 49 now, with a weathered face and small eyes that crinkle at the edges when he talks. His pencil mustache from the photograph has become a peppery beard. He never left Gunwaari because the joining letter disappeared. He doesn’t know how, or when. He last saw it on the shelf.
In 1990, a year after the letter disappeared, he decided to pay his nephew a social visit. Twelve years younger then Shobhalal, Loknath left school after his job letter came through. He was posted at Sanjay Nagar, a colliery 40 kilometers from Gunwaari. Shobhalal heard that Loknath had a large house and a salary of Rs 5678, and he wanted to see, first-hand, how his nephew was doing. So he rode out on his bicycle, dodging trucks and cows on his way past the court at Anuppur town, past the police station, and past the home of the lawyer who would soon come to mean so much to him.
Sanjay Nagar’s quarters were typical for colliery housing; rectangular and blockish. But the colony impressed Shobhalal. He began to feel the dull ache of a missed opportunity.
He asked around for Loknath, but no one had heard of him. Then he saw him, and happily called out his name. ‘Oh, him?’ a man said. ‘His name is Shobhalal.’
Loknath saw Shobhalal’s expression transform. He sensed trouble.
“I said nothing to him that day.” Shobhalal spoke softly, slowly, to keep himself from crying. We sat on a bed in a dark room, in a house he should have been far from. “I ate my dinner and left the next morning. He told me not to discuss it.” His thoughts were a jumble. All he knew was that a nephew he trusted stole his papers. “I let him into my house. I knew he stole corn and kheer, but this…
“I didn’t know about it for a year. Had I not gone there, I would not have known.” His voice began to waver. “I spoke to his father, my cousin. All he said was ‘a cow’s milk is not only for its calf, others also drink it’.”
The job is your right, Loknath’s father told Shobhalal, but you’re not in a position to exercise your right. You’re like that calf.
Shobhalal began to pull together evidence - a job number here, a school certificate there, a confirmation from the village sarpanch - that would prove his identity beyond doubt. He hauled steel lock boxes home to keep his papers secure. Then he visited the police, who told him that a minor payment, say, Rs 10,000, would ensure the job was his. He visited the tehsildar, and the district collector. All of them promised inquiries, none of them materialized. The years passed.
In 1996, a year after an upcoming young lawyer named Vijendra Soni took on his case for free, the Anuppur court admitted the curious case of Shobhalal versus Shobhalal.
Soni, a short, squat man given to sitting over standing, is a bit of a celebrity in Anuppur. He hosts parties at Hotel Govindam, and is recognized as a man of influence. That’s because, besides fighting cases, he’s also a member of the Communist Party of India. Soni joined the party in 1983 as a student looking for direction. Practicing law left him with enough time for politics, and it supported the family. “I had no real passion for it,” he said, slumped in his chair below a large sketch of Vladimir Lenin.
He brought instant steel to Shobhalal’s case. Immediately, colliery officials saw trouble on the horizon. “They instituted their own inquiry, and found that Shobhalal took Loknath to the mine,” Soni said. “Loknath got the job, and he started work as Shobhalal. They decided that Loknath had not stolen Shobhalal’s papers. The whole report was a hypothesis! The fact is, the mine’s management team never tallied the employment numbers.”
Pressed by Soni, the court began investigating the incident by 2000. Officials panicked. Shobhalal says Loknath offered him Rs 1.5 lakh to keep him quiet. “‘Why should I take that money?’ I asked him.”
That year officials dismissed Loknath from his job as a dump truck driver (the job pays Rs 25-30000 a month, Soni says). When he thinks about it, Shobhalal can barely contain his glee. He hasn’t won anything, but Loknath has lost. He thanks his gods profusely. “Now when Loknath passes by, he looks at me like he will kill me. I always told his father that one day God would see to him.” He counts the arrests as mere inconveniences.
Now he wants his job. But he has a long wait. The court will get around to it after the evidence hearings are over and a judgement has been passed on this case.
There’s a man named Shobhalal in Sanjay Nagar. His wife’s name is Sonia. His father’s name, Rampratap. Men in the colony referred to his ganja habit, and said he didn’t work much. From time to time they saw him drive a rickshaw. His wife made ‘good-luck-pots’ - spherical clay pots with slits for coins. She didn’t know where he was. “He left today morning, and I don’t know when he’ll be back.”
In the dark passageway were piles of pots she will soon sell for next to nothing. She blamed the uncle for all this. “He wanted this job,” she said, and mounted a defense of her husband. “His bosses said he was political at work. That he tried to unionize the workforce. They dismissed him saying he was trouble. But everyone should wait and see. We’ll show them once this case is over.”
Their savings frittered away in the years after his dismissal. Only nine years have passed but they seem a lifetime away. Their other house was bigger, she said. It had two floors, and was much nicer. Now she felt the loss sharply, almost bitterly. The neighbors had turned away. They couldn’t afford even mosquito repellent. “What can I do, babu?” she said with a smile that conveyed no joy. “You tell me. What can I do?”