“Rishiji, aap meri baat suniye1.” Mahendra Singh always began a conversation with that. I didn’t mind that. Within a conversation, he frequently interrupted me with that. That sometimes irritated me. But what took the cake was that he interrupted himself with that. He would insert a “Rishiji, listen to me”, in the middle of a sentence!
Other than that, he was repetitive. He used to repeat everything he said. I mean, he was really really repetitive. Sometimes, I felt like telling him that I was spending at least 2 hours a day listening to him. But I never did. Because Mahendra Singh delivered. Rather, his trucks did. They delivered GI sheets, and, they did it in time.
Even with increased staff, extra help was always welcome.
GI or Galvanised Iron sheets are the wavy metal sheets that you generally see on rooftops in hill stations. The government decided to provide GI sheets to people for use as medium-term temporary roofs. Mahendra Singh was the contractor hired for transporting the sheets to the quake-affected villages. Rakes full of GI sheets arrived at Bhuj railway station where they were loaded onto Mahendra Singh’s trucks that took them to the villages.
Those were the days when rebuilding activities had just started. The district administration was handling unprecedented amount of work. Even with increased staff, extra help was always welcome. That is why Topno, the District Development Officer, took no time in assigning us to work as soon as we landed in Bhuj as volunteers. I was asked to look after the demand and supply of GI sheets. No responsibilities were fixed; no powers defined.
On visiting the railway station I met Rathod, the Deputy Collector in charge of the railway station. There was disorder all around, and Rathod was confused. Though they were sending sheets to Anjar as per orders, the trucks were not being unloaded there. Reportedly there was a manpower shortage at Anjar. I was talking to Rathod, when someone informed Mahendra Singh of my existence and he rushed to the control office.
Without even bothering to know about my identity, he started blasting me. “Hamara kaam truck chalane ka hai Sahab, murdon ko jilaane ka nahin hai2.” “So, he is dissatisfied with the government officials,” I thought, “Nothing new, who isn’t.”
I also needed to remember that the transporters doing fertiliser business are the best transporters.
He didn’t have much to say, but his amazing ability to keep repeating himself ensured that I had a long discussion with him. Despite getting bored, I kept talking. I had to work with him; it was necessary that he be kept in good humour.
His family had been living in Kutch for ages, and it had been in the transportation business for an equal amount of time. He was proud of both facts. “Mere dadaji oonth gaadi chalaate the sahab. Bhuj aur Mandvi ke beech main. Hum Mandvi ke rahne vaale hain. Yeh transportation to hamare khoon main hai sahab.3” I never contested his skills in arranging good transportation, but still he felt the need to keep convincing me. I had to internalise that Mahendra Singh was the best transporter in town. Not only that, I also needed to remember that the transporters doing fertiliser business are the best transporters.
In a few days, we became a good team. I was impressed by his work. His trucks always arrived on time in the morning. They were loaded and dispatched swiftly. They came back in time. His records were perfect. Though we were dispatching about thirty thousand sheets per day, rarely was a wrong delivery done.
On the other hand, he liked me because I listened to him! It appeared no one had ever given him that kind of importance. After all, he was a contractor, and administrators are not really fond of listening to their contractors. I, on the other hand, gave him full time to speak; showing a sincere interest in all that was being repeated. In no time, I realised that that was the trick. With Mahendra Singh you could get away with anything, just by listening him out.
Anything? Did I say anything? Then, I must be wrong. Because his affection and love for his employees was unparalleled. His assistants, his drivers and the labourers were all like sons to him. One thing that he could never accept was mistreatment of his employees. Perhaps that is why he commanded such respect from them. Perhaps that is why he was so efficient in his work.
It was not surprising then, that Mahendra Singh stopped loading the trucks when a policeman supervising the loading operations slapped one of his labourers. He wanted to file a police complaint against the policeman in question. Being the gentleman that he was, he wanted a go ahead from the district administration.
The collector was not in town and I had absolutely no idea of what to do.
I made frantic efforts to locate the collector on phone, but was unsuccessful. I tried convincing Mahendra Singh to resume loading and promised to solve the issue as soon as the collector came back. But he refused to oblige. “My labourers are not criminals. Even if he did a mistake, you have no right to beat him. FIR lodge hone tak, kaam bandh.4”
Tried as much as I could, there was no way to convince him. His man had been ill-treated and he refused to begin loading until justice was done. There was nothing to discuss on that. Loading commenced only after the collector came back, and a police complaint was registered against the erring policeman.
But to be fair to Mahendra Singh, that was the only incident when loading stopped. Otherwise, he, his workers, his trucks, and their drivers worked seven days a week; for two months, till the work was over. Together, we ensured that GI sheets reached all villages.
After that I left Bhuj, and joined my job in Bombay. That was almost three years back. But Mahendra Singh still calls me up. Mostly he talks and I listen. After all, that is what our relationship was.
1 “Mr. Rishi, please listen to me.”
2 “I am here to drive trucks, and not to blow life into these corpses.”
3 “My grandfather used to drive a camel cart; between Bhuj and Mandvi. We are from Mandvi. Transportation is in our blood.”
4 “No loading till a police complaint is registered.”