An agnostic in a Foxhole

This journey of mine in the labyrinth of Land Mafia of Bangalore and a death threat that ultimately made me introspect deeply and transformed me is sure to kindle quite a few minds. I have changed the names of people and places but the events are exactly as they happened……..

“Do you know what happens at large vacant sites in Bangalore if the owners are not living there?” Jalli Jagdish leaned towards me from his chair and asked in a very soft and sinister voice. After a few seconds of deliberate pause he continued, “One day someone will call the site owner’s family to inform about a dead body lying at their property”.  He leaned back, straightened up and started shaking his thighs as a sign of self-glorification.

I froze. It took a minute for me to gather my wits. I looked at my advocate and was shocked to see his indifferent countenance.  Slowly a chill went down my spine, and I felt a pit in my tummy. He was threatening me after colluding with my advocate. The plot that I had bought a decade earlier at Poorvahally had increased in value by over ten times and only my property had access to the main road.

My mouth was absolutely parched, but I did not ask for water. “What rate can I expect?” I asked him nervously, half-swallowing nothing from my dry mouth. “I know real estate rates in Mysore. But I am not aware of land prices in Bangalore” I continued hoarsely.  “Could you at least give me a number?” I insisted on awkwardly. They just looked at each other.

The silence that followed spoke more eloquently than Wikipedia write up on intimidation.

“The issue is not the rate Mr Mohan. The issue is for you to get out of trouble” Hegde said.

Of all the emotions it is fear that brings about character transformation fast; much faster than grief. There are situations in our lives when only moral courage (of which I have plenty) is not enough to get through situations that demand raw physical courage. A death threat from a Rowdy surely tops the list of such cases. The fear I felt was so real that I suddenly got into the ‘flight’ mode.

“OK. I will get back to you within a few days” I muttered gathering some courage and suddenly got up, shook Jagadish and advocate’s hands and left the chamber without turning back to their utter bafflement.

Kashi, my chauffeur who was leaning on my new Toyota Fortuner, put on his leather Sandal hurriedly and buttoned up his top shirt button as soon as he saw me getting down the staircase. He opened the door for me. I got in and told him to drive along until he could get enough road width to turn around and head back to Mysore. Just as the van had travelled a few hundred feet, I noticed a familiar figure sitting on a motorbike with a helmet in his hand. ‘Isn’t that our security supervisor Nanju?’ I asked Kaashi.

“Yes, sir. Nanju was not expecting us to come this far in the opposite direction” he said. All the puzzles fell into place as I realised then that Nanju was also very much a part of the nexus.

A drizzle started, and as usual, Kashi refused to turn on the wipers. It was something that I never understood about drivers. ‘Why don’t they turn on the wipers and instead wait till the windshield becomes invisible before turning on the wipers?’ I wondered and yelled at him to switch on the wipers. I guess my outburst was more a coping mechanism for my restless anticipation of a future doom than genuine anger at his attitude.

The death threat kept rushing back into my mind sending a surge of anxiety and panic. I called Mamatha and told her briefly that there was a ‘situation’ regarding our Bangalore property and that I would explain everything once I reached home.

‘Let’s head back to Mysore’ I said somewhat relieved that I would have the Company of my pals at my next day’s tennis. I pulled back my seat, leaned back and closed my eyes.

I developed the practice of breath watching when I was in my early forties during testing times that helps immensely when you are tense. The method takes time and patience as you slowly detach your mind and observe the body breathing all by itself. It is not as much breath watching as catching your biochemical factory called your human body carry out inhalation and exhalation all by itself. Over some time, this practice relaxes your breathing pattern, and you automatically start breathing like babies; tummy up while inhaling and tummy down while exhaling. The resulting relaxation is deep and intense and puts you to sleep.

After about twenty minutes of this relaxation I wondered as to how and why I had this tendency to get into such situations. It was as if I took pleasure in testing the boundaries of rebellion. I recollected my first encounter with the underworld and the events of the past two decades that had culminated in this anti climax.

In 1991, more than two decades ago my father-in-law had introduced me to his second cousin Gopi advising me to buy a few sites in an upcoming layout at Poorvahally in Bangalore of which he was a selling agent. His promptness, his balding head, and his decent manners had somewhat convinced me that he was reliable. I went along with him to the layout. The distance of 10 Kms from my father-in-law’s house had felt reasonable since the traffic was scant and the shortcuts that he took had wide roads. I agreed to buy two adjacent 30ft X 40ft plots making a one 60ft X 40ft plot. The layout was still under formation, and there were only rough markings for the proposed roads and sites. Registration of the sites was carried out at sub-registrar office for Rs. 90000/- and since the value of the registered properties was not very significant, I did not bother to study the flow of title or the mother deed. I instructed my contractor Madhu to come down from Mysore and give an estimate for putting up a brick compound around the perimeter of the sites. There was a huge jackfruit tree right in front of the property that was a significant landmark and easy to remember. I had visited the property only once after the compound was constructed and that was a few years back. A real estate advisor and a friend laughed when he saw the plots and said ‘it will take 20 years for this area to develop. Why did you buy here Mohan?’ he mockingly. “Let it be” I had shot back irritated.

13 years passed by and one morning in early 2004 I was informed by my business vendor from Bangalore that the compound wall around my property had been completely razed to the ground and a large iron fence had been erected around the entire layout consisting of around 24 sites.

I spoke to my childhood pal and cricket teammate Kallesh who had quite a few connections with the Land Mafia of Bangalore about the demolition of the compound.

“This is the problem with this area. It is notorious for such land grabbing and genealogy disputes. You will have to meet my boss Basavararaj to sort out the issue”’ he said. A meeting was set up the very next day at his Boss’s office in Bangalore. Basavraj was the ‘Godfather’ of South Bangalore when it came to land disputes.

I was 46, and up until then I had spent 23 years in business and attended various board meetings, bank meetings, conferences and meetings with C.E.O’s of very large companies. For the first time in my life, I was going to meet up with an underworld Don. The C.E.O of South Bangalore was sitting on a swing that had a full and heavy looking wooden plank suspended and supported with heavy iron chains.  He looked every inch a Don speaking very few words and acting extremely casual and arrogant. He kept gently rocking the swing with his feet as I went and sat across him on a chair that had been positioned carefully. I blurted out everything starting with my purchase of two sites in 1991 to the tearing down of my compound wall a few months before in my usual transparent style. Basavaraj just asked me about the location of my sites and mumbled something about the area being a headache and beckoned one of his cronies and whispered something to him. ‘He will take care of your case, don’t worry’ he said. He was willing and ready to send his posse along with his deputy.

One of Kallesh’s accomplices from his boss’s posse had a deep scar that ran all the way from behind his left ear to the corner of his mouth. It was about an inch wide and disfigured his cheek badly making his cheek look like a half chopped Mango. It took guts to just to look him in the face. Kallesh, Scarface and I went together to my property and waited for about 15 minutes for the new claimant of the property to come. The ‘owner’ was a young boy on a motorbike and he took us to his advocate Reddy who was the real hand behind the dispute.

The talcum powder was visible on Reddy’s sweaty neck as he entered the office and removed his slippers. We went to his cabin and after a couple of minutes a buzz resembling a doctor’s clinic alerted his receptionist to usher us inside. Resembling a good-looking villain from a south Indian film, Reddy appeared to be in his early forties. As if he did not want to displease any of the essential deities, Reddy had portraits of all the gods behind his large desk in his impressive cabin.

Trying hard not to appear shaken by Scarface, Reddy got down to business straightaway. “ Basavaraj told me you might pay me a visit. He told me you are from Mysore”, he said looking at me.

“Yes. I was shocked to find that my compound has been completely demolished without any notice” I said “isn’t there any right or wrong anymore in this world?”

“Saar, you have constructed a compound on sites that do not belong to you”, Reddy said without flinching. “You have purchased two sites in survey number 12/13D whereas the area where the layout is formed is actually in survey number 12/3B”.

“Do you have any proof that the sites are located in 12/3B and not 12/3 D?” Kallesh asked Reddy with a stern face and a glare that could melt a rock.

“Yes of course. The elder brother had illegally taken possession of a survey number that did not belong to him. High Court has now ordered in favour of the younger brother. See the court orders”. Reddy pulled out a copy of the decree from his drawer. Kallesh and Scarface went through the papers page by page.

Kallesh signalled to me to come outside Reddy’s office and explained to me that Reddy appeared to be right and a decision had to be taken fast about the next course of action. After giving my consent to settle the matter even if it meant paying bout a little, Kallesh went back into Reddy’s cabin asked. “What can you do to regularize our two plots?”

“I can rectify two sites in 12/3B for a sum of Rs.1,25,000 each and get it registered in your name” Reddy said.  Kallesh came out and called his boss and spoke to him for a couple of minutes. He then assured me ‘my boss will make sure that Reddy does what he promises.. This is a case of collusion between the brothers to make money from the same property twice. But the property will be worth much much more”, Kallesh added. “OK. I have brought some cash and my cheque book. Let us draw up an agreement and close the deal” I said. We both went inside confirmed their consent to Reddy.

I went a week later with the balance amount to Reddy’s office to collect the sale agreements for the two sites that would have been regularised by him. Reddy was yet to come. I was impatient but decided to wait at his reception. 

“Sir, why don’t you buy off the entire 20400 square foot instead of just 2400 Sft? I can give you an excellent price. You don’t have to pay the full amount right away” Reddy asked me within minutes of our meeting. I was not sure how to respond. I am a spontaneous and impulsive decision maker often taking quick decisions.

“What will be my total outflow?”

Reddy pulled out the calculator from his drawer, did his calculations and said “Rs.52 Lakhs”.

“Make it 45 lakhs and give me six months. I will buy the whole land”. To my surprise, Reddy agreed without even thinking. That’s how I had ended up buying a horse because I had a horseshoe.

Now after another decade my advocate Hegde representing me whom I had hired to evict another Rowdy Jallii Jagdish who had encroached upon my property had called me suddenly after a few days to tell me that Jalli Jagdish wanted to meet me personally. He wanted to buy my property. I left for Bangalore the next day happy that a solution had been found.

“This is Mr.Jagadish, he is buying your adjacent plot from Keerthy” said advocate Hegde as soon as I entered his Chamber pointing towards a handsome, muscular man in his late thirties with his long hair combed all the way back without parting it at the centre with a fair complexion and looked every inch nothing but tyranny. He wore a tight T-Shirt specifically to flaunt his bulging biceps and sat down and turned towards me without any expression in his eyes. He nodded at me and took out his Smartphone. I turned back to face Hegde after working up an equal disdain on my face.

As usual, I wasted no time in broaching the topic and started right away;

“I heard from Mr. Hegde that you are interested in my property. The area has become a prime location,” I said trying my best not to sound or appear intimidated. Jagdish was still busy with his Smartphone and then stared at the floor silently for a moment. He then kept his phone in his pocket and turned to me.

It was at this exact moment that Jalli Jagdish threatened me with a dead body at property if I did not sell it to him. I had left them suddenly and left for Mysore,my home town.

I looked at my watch. It was 7:30 in the evening and I was a few miles away from my home. I thought carefully about what to tell my wife Mamatha. I decided to tell her the truth about the threat.

“Mohan, are you now in a mood to explain what happened with Hegde? Why did you sound so nervous over the Phone?” Mamatha asked me as I threw my laptop bag on the Sofa and started unbuttoning my shirt.

I raised my eyebrows, shook my head and raised my shoulders, “I have never been more shaken in my life. Jagdish threatened me directly of serious consequences if I did not sell the site to him” I said carefully avoiding mentioning anything about dead bodies.

“What? What do you mean Mona?” she asked opening her large eyes wider than Cinemascope. Even before I started the second sentence, she held my hand and dragged me to the Pooja Room’ (Prayer Room) where she keeps myriad of idols and lights lamps every morning after her bath. 

“Put aside your self-righteous attitude, bow before God and pray for a way out of your mess,” she said still holding my hand.

I did not believe that praying for my life would help. But I nodded my head more out of fear of my Missis than the fear of the Almighty. I sat down in our Pooja room for a good 10 minutes silently. I sincerely and honestly tried to shed my humungous ego surrendering to a higher intelligence and awaited for an illumination in my dark mind. No such thing happened.

Panic attacks about the safety of my family came in the way of my regular sleep that night in spite of my double scotch as I tossed around the bed the entire night. My daughter was 21, and my son was 16. What if Jalli Jagdish abducted one of them? What if he ran me over while I was on my morning Jog? Why am I so attached to this experience of existence? Is my life goal only to make money and buy properties to end up attracting evil and live in terror? My pal Kallesh had gone to Singapore and I felt hopelessly alone. Moreover he had become a very wealthy property developer after turning 45.

I consoled myself recollecting the famous saint singer Purandara Dasa’s words; ‘All that happened has happened for good. All that is happening is happening well. All that will happen will also be for Good. Why are you repenting for what you have lost? What have you created that is destroyed? What have you brought with you to lose?’………. I finally fell asleep at midnight.

As if the universe wanted to validate my pondering about life’s uncertainty and its ability to always show the way, within a few days I received a call from two small-time property developers Arun and Suresh, from Bangalore.

“Mr Mohan, we heard that you are selling off your Poorvahally property and we are interested”, said Suresh.

“Are you aware that Jalli Jagdish had razed down a part of my Compound wall and put up an illegal structure at the site?” I asked him.

“Yes. My uncle is the local MLA, and we are used to such litigated sites” he said.

“There is no litigation. There is only illegal encroachment by Jalli Jagdish’ I said.

“OK. That is not a big deal” Suresh said.

We fixed up a meeting at ‘Greens’, a hotel near my house in Mysore after two days.

Mysore still has the rare privilege of full open restaurants surrounded by trees and Greens is one such.

“What will you have?” I asked Arun settling back in the Bamboo chair of the Eco-friendly hotel.

“Sir what are you taking?” he asked me in return.

“I am taking whiskey,” I said.

“Sir one peg here is 60 ml or 90 ml?” Arun asked.

“60 ml. But I will order for a Patiala peg which is 90 ml”. They both oscillated their heads in Indian style.

“Have you dealt with land Mafia and thugs?’ I asked Arun.

Both smiled. Arun took out two drops of his drink from his fingertips, gently tapped them on the table and closed his eyes in an apparent toast to the Almighty. He said lifting his glass “There is no mafia or underworld that we have not seen sir. They are tough only on the exterior. They have their internal demons and fears just like anyone else”.

“You know that Jalli Jagdish has occupied my land and threatening me to sell it to him only at a low price?’

“You leave that to us, sir.”

I exchanged my site for a commercial building converting a valuable but ominous asset into a less valuable one but with reasonable rent and more importantly brought down the Sword of Damocles called Jalli Jagdish hanging over my head.

I would say that cosmos conspired to make a Rowdy bite my posterior so as to compel me surrender my ego. Believers would call it divine intervention. I call it Cosmic conspiracy.

In the end there are no agnostics in Foxholes, myself included!

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