“Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.” – Don Vito Corleone in ‘The Godfather’
It’s been how long now? About 15 years. A lot of water has flown under the bridge! 2002 and Chennai and 2017 and Chennai may not seem very different to the casual on-looker! Trust my word, the city has changed, changed a lot. Alcohol flows freely through state-sponsored outlets. The fear of the law is greater now! Contacts or no contacts, there is a bit of fear in the eyes of the commoner for the khaki uniform. Time has changed a lot!
In the period between 1999 and 2002, Vyasarpadi saw some of its worst gang-fights, the ganja-peddlers and the cocaine-snorters among the elite ensured that there was a high demand for the contraband narcotics. Gaja and Michael were kingpins of sorts handling the distinct clientele for the two poisons. There was a well established network of runners, suppliers, couriers. Life was way different from what it is today. Today distinct WhatsApp and Facebook groups function with key codes that let people access the contraband on a high-end delivery model. From pills in Tic Tac boxes to cocaine hidden in glucose packets and energy-drink sachets, from the consumer to the provider, the smart-phone, internet and credit cards; everything has changed! The one constant that remains is the demand for the narcotic, from high-school to college, the drug that eventually sucks out your soul continues to remain in high demand. Producers differ, suppliers change, the revenue-model differs, the price changes, the Sri Lankans that used to route in the drugs to fund the war have given way to Russians and Nigerians who funnel the contraband through Goa, Bengaluru and finally Chennai. The business runs as strong as ever! The variables are the people who run the show. The constants are the craving for the drug!
It was a chance encounter! One of those strange twisted days in one’s horoscope that’s decided by the Maker! Raghu asked me to hold a bag as he brought his bike out of the college’s parking lot. He asked me to wait at the rear exit gate, adjoining the hostel compound. As I waited for him to come, there was a sudden flash of pain as someone hit me hard on the head and I was reeling, trying to steady myself as I felt a buzz in my head. My assailant tried to take the bag that Raghu gave me and pulled hard! Some instinct made me grab the bag harder as I let loose a kick straight into the gut of my assailant! By then Raghu had come with his bike and seeing the situation headed full speed aiming to ram into the assailant who managed to evade at the last moment by diving to his right. By then some hostel-mates saw the commotion and came running out shouting expletives. The assailant jumped into an auto and fled.
Raghu then took me to our usual haunt – Muthu Anna’s bakery and as he put some ice onto my head, I asked him what was in the bag! Raghu then smiled his cryptic smile and said — “Swamy vaendaam, irukattum, handing the bag to you was my mistake! Let it go!” I realized that it was something shady and I got myself unnecessarily involved into the mess; but whatever be the case he had in a way saved me from further injury! He looked into my eyes and said — “Swamy, promise me, you will not speak of this to anyone, promise!!!” That evening over two glasses of milky-tea and vegetable puffs at Muthu Anna’s bakery a pact was made, a promise, to watch out for each other! It was then that I got drawn bit-by-bit into the shady underbelly of the drug mafia that ruled the city! The tasks were simple – travel from point A to point B – hand over a bag, receive another bag in return, which was to be dropped at a popular restaurant.
The vortex seemed to drag me deeper into a nefarious web! My professor called me one afternoon to his room and said – “Swamy, you need not do this courier-boy stuff, you are a good kid. Think of your family! What would they do if you get killed in a gang-war or if you get arrested? Just focus on your studies.” The conversation was a turning point. Raghu continued his way and would eventually drop out of college and I lost touch with him. As the final exams neared every bit of focus went into getting a good academic score. The brief association with the underworld was forgotten! Over the years, I have seen the city change in front of my eyes, people coming and going, memories good and bad! But that pact made in the bakery, it still haunted me from time to time and I would wonder what happened to Raghu.
It was a Friday evening and I got a call from an unknown number, as I attended the call, a voice from the past returned — “Swamy this is Raghu! I need you to come down to Mumbai right away! I am sending you the flight tickets.” Nothing less and nothing more, a flash from the past and to honour a pact I had to fly. As I landed in Mumbai, I was met by Raghu. He seemed to have changed a great deal – dressed in designer suits and a flashy gold bracelet on his wrist, he embraced me in a warm hug. “Thanks for coming Swamy!” Appu my younger brother is in a mess, he has OD’ed and was found in his hostel room. We have moved him to the hospital and he is out of danger. I need your support Swamy, for old times sake! There is just way too much happening around me and I need your support, please be with me, till I sort this out!”
The next two days went in a flash, accompanying Raghu to the hospital, the college hostel, the police station, it was as if a reel was being replayed again and again. The lawyers and the money that Raghu handed out generously ensured that no police-case was filed. Raghu accepted the college principal’s decision of handing out a transfer certificate on health reasons. Appu was admitted to a de-addiction and rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Mumbai. I discovered that Raghu had over the years, grown in stature, made enough enemies and branched out to Mumbai serving as an important link in the supply-chain. His younger brother had unwittingly fallen prey to the very drug that had helped set up his financial wealth and standing! Justice works in a strange way indeed!
As I boarded my return flight, I kept wondering, why, after all these years, why would Raghu call me! A pact, a cinematic, silly and foolish pact that two college-kids made years ago! Well – I felt relieved, the debt had been repaid, the pact balanced and life goes on!