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Letter to a Murdered Mate

DEAR DUBEYJI (if I may, that’s what one of your batchmates said you were called at IIT Kanpur): This is the first letter I’m writi...

DEAR DUBEYJI (if I may, that’s what one of your batchmates said you were called at IIT Kanpur):

This is the first letter I’m writing to a murder victim. Either in fact or in fiction. I’m doing this for two, three reasons. No, make it four. Four sounds right—it’s been four days since we first heard the whistle you blew. Four is the number of years both of us spent at IIT. Four sides make the Golden Quadrilateral.

1. I write because I don’t know what else to do. I can’t reconstruct your body from your ashes, send it to TV studios, let anchors squeeze your shoulder in prime-time empathy. My colleagues at The Indian Express were the first to tell us—and the world—about the whistle you blew one full year before you were killed. That you wrote to the Prime Minister about your nightmares in his dream project. Nightmares of old-fashioned corruption on a futuristic highway.

Your whistle blew hard, right in the first paragraph: Sir, don’t mention my name. And you were courageous enough to whisper it right in the end because you didn’t want to be seen as running scared—you did the brave, honourable thing.

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They didn’t.

They underlined your sentences and then they didn’t give a damn. Did you believe they would? The flunkeys who scribbled on your letter are paid to stay permanently bent at the waist, on all fours, their lips puckered from perpetually kissing the ground beneath their Bosses’ feet. Such people never know what to do with someone like you, someone who stands up straight.

When we called, guess what one puckered-lip flunkey told us: ‘‘I don’t remember the letter, send me a copy.’’ We almost said, ‘‘Go to hell, you…’’ I’ll tell you tonight what that word was—our readers don’t need to know. It will be our little secret.

The last four nights, in the Express newsroom, you’ve been on our computer screens, on our front pages. We have got calls and letters from Tokyo to Cupertino and as I write this, someone is signing the 10,848th signature on a petition to the Prime Minister’s Office (do the puckered-lip flunkeys know how to read?).

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They should send a copy to Sonia Gandhi and her tongueless tribe as well. So that when they wipe their tri-state election tears away, they can call up their only friend Laloo Prasad Yadav and tell him: ‘‘For once, think it was Satyendra Yadav who died, now can you get moving?’’

We got calls on your picture, too.

A few lines about the picture. We got it from a family friend of yours, in New Delhi, his number from your IIT batchmate who’s a cop, one of the first to see your body. It’s a studio picture, you look—how do I say this since as an editor, I’m paid to be sceptical, to believe that pictures have to be deceptive—but I will say it anyway: You Look Innocent.

But I have a complaint, Dubeyji, mind mat kijiyega.

This is from one IITian to another: I wish you’d got one of your wingmates who’s got stock options to get you a pair of Armani glasses, a Hugo Boss shirt. And instead of sitting so straight, so stiff, I wish you’d kind of draped yourself over a woman with breasts, a midriff to murder for. The Times of India would have given you a nice front-page mention.

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Jokes aside, that picture of you got to us. And the second picture, too, of your father in that cold Champaran house, his eyes vacant, a pullover over his vest. Just like my father. I had to write to you.

2. This is a terribly selfish reason: I need to write to you. Because it lightens the weight on my little appendage called conscience. Let me explain. You and people like you are, in a way, responsible—I know this sounds harsh, so forgive me, I’m six years your elder—you are responsible for the discomfort I feel once in a while.

You see, I did just the opposite. I, too, got into IIT, Kharagpur 1984, you must have been in Class VI then, an 11-year-old kid. I milked the taxpayer, I got a B Tech, Mechanical, not so much different from your Civil. (Remember fluid dynamics, strength of materials, numerical theory, those atrocious drawing classes?). Once, twice I, too, wanted to give. To teach village children! In fact, one day, I took the bus for an interview for a job in a West Bengal village, got it, returned to find a telegram and a scholarship from Los Angeles. Went straight to the US Embassy.

Building a road in the heart of darkness? I’d rather read Conrad.

So I milked that US degree to get jobs, first in the US, then back home and now I sit in a cubicle in south Delhi where the only threat to my life, besides the cigarettes I smoke, is the prospect of a plane falling down as it descends to land because we seem to be right below an air corridor.

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Since I graduated, I have written two novels, not even thick enough to be used as pillows, I’ve bought a house in Gurgaon, haven’t moved in yet, my wife’s working on it. By the way, the day she read about you, you know the first thing she said? ‘‘He joined IIT the year I graduated from IIT, he’s such a bachcha.’’ Dubeyji, you were a kid, you don’t get killed at 31.

Call me an arrogant sonofabitch, IITians don’t get murdered at 31 for doing their job.

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This weekend, we will sit in the balcony of our new house and admire the view: right in front is the Golden Quadrilateral. From the distance where we are, we can’t make out those working there—maybe there’s one just like you.

3. I write to you because I never knew you in life but in death, you seem perfect. Sorry, I’m an editor, I’m banned from using such phrases. So I’ll rewrite: almost perfect.

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I’m not exaggerating. You were doing what we dream of in dreams we never talk about. You could have got yourself into a US university, IIT Kanpur gets you that. Even if you didn’t have a hot CGPA, you’d have smashed the GRE analytical and math, verbals you’d have brushed up. You’d have got three profs to give you great recos, you could have been one of us, IITians who wear our IIT on our sleeves and make sure our hands don’t get dirty. We flinch, just a little bit, whenever someone says what did you give back to the country?

Then we spin, we philosophise, we say what the hell, we built Brand IIT, we built Infosys. We say, don’t be an old-fashioned jerk, what’s brain drain in a globalised world? Look, look, we say, we work for McKinsey, we work for Deloitte Touche, we make CNBC drool, we work at Goldman Sachs, if Dr Manmohan Singh was the engine of reforms, we went and got MBAs at Wharton and IIM and became its bloody chassis, wheels, steering, drivers. What the hell do you mean what did you do for your country? Do you seriously want us to go to Bihar and build a road to prove that we care?

Well, Dubeyji, you did that.

And even if you hated your job some days, even if you felt trapped every day every night, even if you sometimes winged it, even if your complaint to the Prime Minister was an idealist’s complaint, not a realist’s one, you are almost perfect.

Since you chose, and here I will use a cliche‚ because it’s so perfect: you chose the path less travelled.

4. And that’s why I am writing to you to tell you—and I will never tell this to your mother or father, I can never tell this to your mother or father—your death can’t be forgotten.

Because we need your ghost. We need your ghost to knock on Mr B C Khanduri’s door at night, scare him when he sleeps the sleep of a job well done. Because we need the highway. My wife and I, in Gurgaon.

And my brother-in-law who works as a doctor in a village not far from where you were killed. It takes him 14 hours to travel 250 km from Patna. You were working to make his life easier, to help him move his patients faster. To make more frequent trips to meet his daughter who’s growing up almost as fast as the highway.

A good friend and my IIT batchmate from Kharagpur, Partha Chakroborty, is associate professor in your department at Kanpur. He just about missed you, came down from Delaware to join Kanpur the year you were leaving. I asked him this morning: what does Dubeyji’s story mean to you?

I quote his email:

‘‘On the positive side, it tells me there is hope. That there are brave souls willing to take immense risks to stand up against corruption. It also tells me that the education system may still be playing a role in instilling some of virtues which make a society strong and liveable.’’

He told me to express his sorrow to your father, our reporter spent a day at your home. Your father was crying, he didn’t speak, he couldn’t speak. He didn’t have to. Because you are doing the talking, Dubeyji.

Because they may not build a memorial to you on the Aurangabad-Barachatti highway, no Bollywood director may ever buy the rights to your story, we may never see a Hindi version of Meryl Streep’s Silkwood, they may not enact the Dubey Disclosure Law to protect whistleblowers like you, they may never send those puckered-lip flunkeys home.

But the next time—and there will be a next time—there is a Satyendra Dubey, from IIT or wherever, who walks into a lonely place to blow the whistle, he will look right and left. He will look over his shoulder, it will be cold, the wind will blow hard, he will then look up. And he will see you shining there.

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First published on: 05-12-2003 at 12:00:00 am
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