The damn theft and a bribe

Shashank Gupta
Shashank GuptaJul 27, 2021 | 15:21

The damn theft and a bribe

Like fire eats fire, does one crime negate the other? Is dishonesty nothing but business management?

I reached the farm at the usual time, six-thirty, to be informed by Shanker, the replacement driver-manager after Billa had been sacked for misdemeanour, that the battery of our Ford-3600 tractor had been stolen in the night. It was a first. I had heard of milk and scrap metal being bartered for cheap alcohol but something so critical, never. A tractor battery is thirty kilos and none of those fossils staying on the farm then had the strength to carry one off on his shoulder, unless the bicycle was an accomplice. But that had already been stolen, as discussed in another blog. This could only mean that two people were involved, to be on the lookout and also carry it away. No two people were such good friends on the farm. Shanker looked woeful. He couldn’t throw up his chance of managing a farm, after a life of a lesser farmhand elsewhere, said common sense. His enemies created out of envy, however, had every reason to rock his boat. Who were those from the past or the present? I could think of none. He was a smart diplomat playing one against the other and getting work done. He was a hungrier and, therefore, better manager than Billa in many ways.

main_ford-3600_wikim_072721031021.jpgThe battery of our Ford-3600 tractor had been stolen in the night. The accomplice? The tractor itself. (Representative photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Billa. Billa was the enemy. Billa knew the tractor. Billa was friends with the men. Billa was aware of the ins and outs of the farm. Plus he could have retained the keys to the garage. Everything made sense except how could he get the shutters up without making a terrible rattle? My deductions were leading me somewhere very blurry. There was an idea I knew embedded in the haze.

I had read enough mysteries on murder and could have solved a killing with ease. Crown jewels and paintings had been burgled in books, but a tractor battery was never mentioned. I walk about with my head bent scouring the dust for clues. I scanned the orchard for freshly dug graves for it was a practice among tribes of rural thieves to create a room-size hole in the ground, with an incline, and then drive a stolen tractor into the hole to be subsequently covered and uncovered only when the affair had blown over. The same tribe would make a straw ramp to the terrace of the house and drive stolen cattle up the incline. When the police came inquiring they wore solemn expressions and let them check. No one bothered looking at the rooftops. I didn’t think such creative monsters would bother with a battery. They liked things that moved.

Throughout my silent investigations, Shankar remained my shadow. His eyes were wells on the brink. He made the sound of a bloated lamb seeking a reassuring pat on the back. He was overdoing the grief bit which made me suspect he knew the thief and was afraid to blurt out. And when one of the men, Triveni I think it was, spoke of a woman who could put a curse on the thief, I heard a large gulp go down Shanker’s gullet. He was guilty as hell, I concluded, telling him to arrange for the sorceress if the battery didn’t appear by the next morning.

I rode my scooter, still preoccupied with the crime when I saw a figure waving for me to stop. It was Billa. He said he heard of the theft and some rumours pointing to the traitor and perpetrator.

“Tell me,” I said. “Shanker,” he replied plainly, trying not to appear envious. “I know I shouldn’t be doing this, Bhai Saab, but the farm has been my mother.”

I cared two hoots for such sentiments, they made me want to puke.

“How could he carry it off on his own?” I asked firmly. Billa laughed “He had a partner you know so well.”

“Who?” My voice shook with anticipation of a shock revelation, as in a final scene mounted by Miss Marple.

“The Ford 3600,” he said.

I was silent, so he continued. “He takes the tractor out at night and goes for a drink in the village near the forest. He was there last night when they whacked the battery. We’re lucky it wasn’t the tractor.” Billa said “we’re lucky” meaning he wanted to get his job back. In his rule, something like this never happened.

“He goes there every evening you say? Are you certain? Why can’t he just carry the liquor back with him? This part doesn’t make sense. Isn’t he afraid he will be seen? Nobody told me.” I was asking what I knew the answer to. You don’t snitch, else it gets messy. Technically, Shanker had not stolen the battery, he had been irresponsible, which was a serious offence in his position.

The next morning a woman greeted me as I rode into the farm. The battery hadn’t been found and she was there to curse, Shanker said. I knew why he was cheerful. He was technically not the thief, someone in the village by the forest was. If the evil spirits used a bit of logic, the curse should fall on that somebody. I stared at the sorceress and felt extremely foolish. She went away with a bundle of kindling as consultation charges. I told Shanker to walk me to the other end of farm.

I came directly to the matter, “I know what happened. The whole village knows. Now tell me about it.”

He was silent, obviously surprised. Gradually it seemed he was glad the weight of the battery had been lifted off his shoulder. His muscles relaxed. He straightened his sunglasses. Because of his sunglasses visitors to the farm mistook him to be the master and me the driver-manager. I had been told by the family, in no uncertain words, to learn how to dress from him.

“You know how often the transformer blows up, Bhai Saab.” he was saying. I nodded. “Every time the linesman comes he asks for money. The same goes for the revenue guy, the irrigation department and the telephone. They come and demand money,” he continued. 

“A bribe,” I prompted.

“Yes. And you refuse to pay them. Every other farmer does except us. So they get their work done and we struggle. I’m not saying they are right, we are, but work needs to be done.”

main_bribe_reuters_072721031132.jpegIf political parties got funding from bribes and extortion, why couldn’t he? (Representative photo: Reuters)

“What has that got to do with taking the tractor out at night, getting drunk in the village and having the battery stolen?” I snapped. “Why couldn’t you just walk or get a bicycle like a self-respecting drunkard?” I was beginning to get annoyed with his smugness. He looked pained.

“You will ask me to quit if I tell you the truth,” he said.

Billa had told me the truth at the fag-end of our interview. Still, I wanted to hear it from him.

He said, “I take the tractor because I sell them diesel. They pay me, and the liquor is free.”

“Why?” I was glad he was opening his gob.

“To pay the bribes. I keep none of it, Bhai Saab.”

He actually had the audacity to say that. He must have thought of what was most honourable under the circumstances. If political parties got funding from bribes and extortion, why couldn’t he? The farm was a country and needed protection from itself. The honest way did not always get things done.

Naturally, Shanker packed up and left the village. Billa came back. How did he manage the country? I have no idea. Did he sell scrap, a farmer’s family silver?

Last updated: July 27, 2021 | 15:21
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