Sethji – by Sudhir Dhoot

“It has to be done”, Samar said, breaking the tense silence that had engulfed the conference room of Bhagwati Mansion. Sethji stood in silence facing the window, staring out into blank space. The wrinkles on his inscrutable face became even more defined as golden rays of the evening sun scattered itself all over it. Age had only refashioned the once muscular and zealous lad into an experienced and wise leader. He gently lowered his chin, with the poise of unwillingly accepting the inevitable, as the cortège of his most trusted men awaited his response. He closed his eyes, knitting his eyebrows together; he had come too far to let it all go now. Sethji breathed heavily as he turned toward Samar, placing his fist firmly on the polished wooden table. His hesitation had now transformed into uncompromising sternness as he stared stone-faced into Samar’s eyes. “Kill him”, he said, clenching his teeth together.

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It might have been just another day for everyone else but for this kid from Delhi University, it was a day that would change his life forever. A rebellious and motivated young boy from Raipur, barely in his 20’s but with dreams to soar the skies, Iqbal was the leading political member of DU’s most powerful lobby. 

Although he was from a small town Iqbal dreamt that he would change the world, and he would do it with his principles intact. He believed in the inherent goodness of people, even the most notorious of them all, and trusted that with integrity and honesty he could overcome even the most punishing and onerous problems. A man with archaic principles and a heart of gold, he was certainly one in a million, the ideal leader. Sick of the debauched and immoral politics, Iqbal was the ray of hope Delhi had been waiting for, and it wasn’t long before he became the heart-throb of DU politics. Having lost his parents to communal violence, Iqbal had taken a very strong stance on religious equality and was famous for his policy of isolating religion and politics. 

Iqbal peered lazily over the mossy ledge of his apartment’s balcony as he heard the distant rumble of two Royal Enfield’s approaching. Being a motorcycle enthusiast himself, he immediately recognized the distinct sound of its 500cc engine, roaring with the authority of owning the streets on which it rode. However, his countenance transformed from anticipatory zeal into marked curiosity as he saw two men clad in white kurtas, saffron tikas smeared on their foreheads and rudraksha beads wrapped around their sweaty fists, get off from the motorcycles; a rare sight in the Islamic colony of Nizamuddin, Delhi. He squinted as he watched one of them brazenly spit betel juice next to the polished rims of his Enfield, as the other started enquiring about something to a passer-by, who pointed towards Iqbal’s balcony. However Iqbal wasn’t surprised. The disdain and arrogance of the two strangers, their overt appearance, and their advent a few months before the Vidhan Sabha elections made sense to him, as he looked at the two men gazing up at him through their shiny Ray Ban sunglasses. Iqbal smirked as he saw them walk into the rusty old building. He had calculated that this would happen. The door of his apartment creaked open as they walked in condescendingly, their dirty brown sandals leaving impressions on his freshly washed floor. There was a moment of cinematic silence before one of them rummaged in his pockets and took out a bunch of keys. He picked out the key to the Royal Enfield, and held it out towards Iqbal, “Raghu Pratap Jaykar sends his regards”, he declared with a smug face. 

Raghu Pratap Jaykar, an influential and powerful MLA, who led the coalition party in Delhi’s Legislative Assembly, had a reputation of recruiting young aspiring politicians from universities, and training them in his party. He himself had started out as a lobby leader in his college and had slowly risen up the political ladder to now become the sole undisputed leader of his party. It was a well-known fact that one of the only ways to rise up in Delhi politics was to associate with Raghu. Raghu Pratap although a self made man, had a smudged reputation on the way he conducted his politics. He had been accused of being involved in a lot of disputes over the years, but he had always been acquitted due to ‘lack of evidence’. Having built himself from scratch, Raghu had a special appeal with the lower classes, and over the years had earned a sobriquet for himself – Sethji. 

Two policemen saluted them as they rode through the gates of Bhagwati Mansion. The apprehensions in Iqbal’s mind grew furiously as he rode his Enfield behind his two guests. He knew that associating himself with Sethji went against all his principles and beliefs. Sethji may have tried to deceive the world with his innocent guise, but Iqbal was no fool. He knew how things in politics worked, exactly why he also knew that to achieve his ambitions he needed Sethji’s help. He could not “change the world” as he wanted to by winning in mere college elections. He needed to step up his game and play in the real world, and this was his best shot at it. The turbulent debate in Iqbal’s mind continued as they walked up the marble staircase leading to Sethji’s office. He paused before the office door as they reached the top of the staircase. He knew that once he went in there was no turning back. He closed his eyes, remembering the day he had left Raipur to come to Delhi. His sister had begged him to stay; “The capital changes people”, she used to say. “Not me, I promise”, Iqbal always replied, “Never me”. “What are you waiting for boy?” the bald man behind him groaned. Iqbal snapped back into reality. He had made a choice. With a deep sigh, he twisted the doorknob of the wooden door marked ‘Raghu Pratap Jaykar, MLA’. 

Four months had passed since Iqbal had joined Sethji, and he was right. Iqbal realized that DU was just a fragment of what Delhi politics was all about. He had seen nothing but the tip of the iceberg. This is where real power was, this is where real change would happen, and Iqbal was now part of it all. It had only been a matter of time before Iqbal’s popularity escalated beyond his university. Word of his honest and idealistic political character had spread and he had become an inspiration for the entire city. To Sethji he was an invaluable asset, his ticket to Delhi’s top leadership, the chief minister. 

Sethji’s experience had taught him that every man’s morality had a price. However, just as shrewd as he was experienced, he knew that Iqbal was a true believer. But to Sethji, that just made him a little more expensive than the rest. He trusted that someday Iqbal too would be ready to sell his principles. All he needed was to find the right time and the right price. 

Today, Sethji reckoned, he had found the right time. 

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(…….. His hesitation had now transformed into uncompromising sternness as he stared stone-faced into Samar’s eyes. “Kill him”, he said, clenching his teeth together.) 

Iqbal’s eyes widened in horror as he swiftly whirled his head towards Samar. He knew he when joined Sethji, when Samar had come to him as Sethji’s messenger, what he was signing up for, but he had never anticipated that he would be confronted with a situation like this. Murder – cold blooded, clear as day, this was murder they were talking about. He knew Sethji had his ways of getting things done, of ‘handling the situation’ as he liked to call it, and he had never interfered in Sethji’s business. In these past few months he had been smart enough to realize that he was nothing more than a glorified pawn in Sethji’s vast empire, and that his interference would be but a slight hiccup in the king’s way. He had always told himself that one day, when he would be significant enough a player, he would stand up for himself, true to his principles. 

But as he sat there appalled and outraged, he discerned that this wasn’t about his principles, or ethics any more. This was about humanity, plain and simple. In front of him stood Delhi’s most influential and powerful individual, a man with the capacity to refine politics, the ability to ameliorate millions of lives but all that was visible was a picayune and trivial murderer. And alongside stood his bunch of ‘wise’ counselors, the cortège of his ‘most trusted’ men, all with a deathly silence. Iqbal revolted at the mere thought of being a part his flock of yes-men. Repulsed by the mute troupe of the namesake counselors, he turned his gaze towards Sethji. 

All this while Sethji’s gaze had been fixed on Iqbal. Years of experience and training had turned him into a politician, and what is a politician but a crafty and conniving reader of men. One look at Iqbal’s face was enough for Sethji to know oceans of what was going through his mind. Perhaps this wasn’t the right time after all. “Out, all of you”, commanded Sethji keeping his eyes fixed on this painfully veracious protégé of his. Deep inside Sethji harbored a mild admiration for Iqbal, for he still possessed something Sethji had auctioned off years ago – honor. Had it been anyone else, he would’ve ‘handled the situation’, but Iqbal was his most valuable asset, and Sethji was not ready to lose him just yet, not when the elections were this close. 

“Murder”, cried Iqbal standing up with a jolt as soon as the last leaving person closed the teak door behind him. His chair tumbled due to the intense jerk, creating a minor racket. Sethji’s rheumy eyes glided over to the chair before returning back to a steaming young kid. “I will not let you do it, you hear me, I will not let you do it”, Iqbal stammered hastily. A scornful grin spread itself all over Sethji’s shriveled lips. “Let me?” he sniggered, “Let me, huh kid. What a shame, you aren’t all that smart after all.” Iqbal’s face turned scarlet with childish fury. “I will not sell my soul”, he uttered, this time calmly and with defiance. The grin from Sethji’s face slowly faded as he raised his eyebrows in understanding. In him Sethji saw the young version of himself, rebellious, zealous and pure. Then with a deep sigh he turned around and walked towards the window. The sky had turned purple and the darkness in the room accentuated Sethji’s silhouette looking outside the window, where in the embellished lawn, his daughter-in-laws sat sipping tea. 

“Your soul, you say”, Sethji muttered in tranquility, still gazing outside the window, “I’ve often wondered what souls are made of, collateral damages mostly! I imagine it as a garden with dunes of character traits that we’ve shed from time to time. Some happy fountains and memories written on fallen leaves, some we can’t really remember and some we can’t really forget. You want to know what my soul is made of?” Sethji pivoted steadily towards Iqbal as he continued in a steel voice, “ Well, it’s a large ocean with abysstical depths, and the surface, the surface is on fire. You can either burn above or suffocate beneath it. So Iqbal, my precious boy, choose your suffering.” Iqbal couldn’t say anything. Principled and honorable as he might be, he had just been threatened by the most formidable and vile man in Delhi, someone who was his mentor a few minutes ago. He had never seen Sethji in this form. Shaking his head vigorously he stepped back towards the door. “Ah, it’s terrible, it really is,” Sethji said with a sigh, shaking his head in disapproval, “They say she is really pretty, your sister. Isn’t she almost of marriageable age? It would be a shame if anything were to happen to her, Raipur can be a dangerous place you see.” 

The color of anger and rage had been flushed from Iqbal’s face as he stared at Sethji. His dry lips had gaped open and even in the darkness he could clearly see Sethji’s glass-eyed face. Fear and awe flooded him alike as his pale face stood in stark contrast to the man he had threatened a few moments ago. His moist eyes followed Sethji advancing slowly towards the door of the conference room. “You will do as I say Iqbal. Arkam Zahid is the only link holding our opposition’s party together and you will kill him, and no one will ever suspect you. I will become this city’s chief minister, do you understand?” he said crisply with a sickening arrogance as he placed a 9mm revolver on the table. “You have a lot of potential boy, do not waste it,” he added looking at Iqbal. Hesitantly, Iqbal picked up the revolver with his trembling hands, still staring pale faced at Sethji. Turning around, Sethji marched out, carrying a satisfied grin on his smug face. 

The earth burned feverishly as Iqbal rode his new Enfield on the parched roads of Delhi, riding his way to his college. He could feel the hot metal body of the revolver burn his back where he kept it tucked in his jeans. There was an election campaign in his college today. The college where he had started, where he had been nurtured and supported, the college to which he owed it all, and it only seemed fit for him to end it all here. The punishing rays of the midday sun scorched his sweaty forehead but he kept riding, oblivious and numb. The guards smiled, raising one hand in a respectful salutation as they watched Iqbal park his motorcycle. Iqbal nodded his head in acknowledgment as he walked in, crossing the barricade marked ‘Restricted’. It was almost time for the motorcade to arrive. Iqbal kept his head down as he walked towards the college building adjoining the stage. After all everyone knew him here, and he wanted to be invisible. He swiftly climbed up the staircase to the first floor corridor and after a few minutes of deliberation positioned himself between two pillars behind the railing. He nodded his head in contentment, he had a perfect view of the stage, and he was close enough without being in sight. Inspecting his surroundings and position for one last time, he pulled out the revolver, gawking at it blankly, as he continued breathing heavily. 

He snapped back, as he heard the wailing sound of sirens. Looking down he observed 4 vehicles, just as he had expected, entering into the compound. He lifted the revolver, clasping it in his shivering fists. Beads of sweat trickled down his greasy face as he breathed heavily. His heart pumped furiously, as he took aim, both his index fingers placed on the trigger. Tears concealed themselves on his wet face as he clenched his teeth, in a futile endeavor to steady his nerves. Squinting, through the barrel of the revolver, he could see two armed men get out from the first vehicle and rush to open the gates of a shiny white Ambassador. Iqbal felt a shiver go down his spine as he watched the feet of his target, clad in black leather sandals, lay step outside onto the green carpet. The same feet he had touched a million times. He saw the wrinkled knuckles, fists with a golden ring on each finger, clutching a wooden cane, come out. The hands that had been placed on his forehead so many times, so many blessings. He saw the intimidating and formidable Sethji exit the Ambassador; he saw it all through the barrel of his 9mm revolver. 

It was his only option, he kept telling himself. Iqbal was loved by the Delhi public, by his party supporters and by the opposition alike. He was seen as Sethji’s precious gem, his only asset in these times of debauchery, the last suspect in any political crime, leave alone when Sethji was the victim. Iqbal could not have killed Arkam, because he knew Sethji. He knew once he went down that road Sethji would never stop, not at any cost. This was his only option, he repeated. He had calculated it all. But what good are calculations to a man blinded by honor? He was a man true to his beliefs, a man of dignity and of principles. And yet he stood here with a revolver in his hands. But to Iqbal this wasn’t the greater sin. He stood there pointing the revolver to his mentor. A corrupt and crooked mentor, yes, but a mentor nevertheless. He clasped his eyes shut, a million thoughts racing through his mind. The grip on his revolver loosened as he remembered his last words to his sister, “Not me, I promise. Never me.” He allowed himself a faint smile, as he pictured his sister, and then suddenly, without any hesitation, with a firm grip and steely eyes, he pulled the trigger. 

Iqbal stood by the window at dusk, his broad muscular frame covering most of it. It had been months since Sethji’s assassination. Ironically the authorities were unable to find the assailant due to ‘lack of evidence’. Iqbal and Sethji’s party had received generous sympathy and commiseration from the entire city. The elections had been delayed, and even the opposition was in shock. Iqbal’s support had strengthened, as even the most loyal crusaders of the opposition sympathized with his cause. There was no question, no dispute, as to who would succeed Sethji. 

Iqbal took a deep breath as the cool winter breeze blew in. How much he wished to run back in time, to a much simpler world, a happy world, however a world which was far from reality. The teak door swung open as a meek lad entered hurriedly with a message. He was a new recruit in the party, a college student, and seeing Iqbal he immediately slowed down; he had heard a lot about this man. In their locality he was even considered to be a messiah. His pupils dilated as he took a few moments to grasp in the image of this man-god of his. Iqbal meekly acknowledged his presence by a brief sideway glance. Since Sethji’s death this had become almost a daily occurrence now. The boy immediately remembered his purpose and knelt down on one knee. Lowering his chin he stammered, “They are ready for you, Sultan.” 

Sultan. Every man is born nameless, and then his progenitors name him. But during the course of his life, every man’s deeds earn him a title and that is what becomes his legacy, what is left after he dies. Not the man, not his name, but the title. It does not matter whether you want it or not, for you cannot command it, it’s your cross to bear. Iqbal had left Raipur with a belief, a delusion that he would change Delhi. However this fire of delusion was never meant to forge diamonds, but to cast iron, and Sultan was the resultant weapon. 

Iqbal had met these men nearly a year ago as his seniors, and today Sultan met them again as his counselors. The same cortège of ‘trusted’ men that had reserved their counsel and kept shut, when their previous boss made the biggest mistake of his life, he contemplated with disgust. Sultan walked into the room, with defining strides, as he scanned each and every individual. Then placing both his fists on one end of the table, and eyes fixed at them, he uttered slowly, “Do you know what souls are made of?” 

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