The day was slower than usual for Shashikant’s business. Most of the people he employs were out playing cricket. His uncle, a thin emaciated man in his sixties was at the cash register and he was himself busy inside. Two men sat drinking for a long time. Then they got up, paid for their drinks and went away only to come back after a quick while. They sat this time in the air-conditioned section and asked for food. The dishes they ordered would take a while they were told. They drank some more in the meantime and soon got restless and turned abusive. A brawl is a very normal thing in Shashikant’s business. “Some of them come really demure and shrunken in size but a couple of drinks after, they all ask the same question: Do you know who I am?,” he says. “In a place like mine, the conservancy inspector asserts himself, in a more up-market place, it is the municipal engineer, one step ahead is the municipal commissioner and in a five-star hotel, it is the minister. But it is the same question they all ask: Do you know who I am?” By the time he came to see what the commotion was about, the two men, off-duty Mumbai cops, had turned violent and without paying for their additional drinks, stormed out. A scuffle ensued. The two returned and threw money at the cash box and as Shashikant’s uncle tried to catch the money, one of them dramatically slapped him hard across his face. This got Shashikant’s goat and he tried to restrain them. The two fled the scene. Someone called the police. Forty five minutes later, the police had not arrived but the two men had called for reinforcement in the form of two criminals. One of them confronted Shashikant with a paper cutter and started slashing him left and right. Bleeding profusely, he ran into an auto rickshaw that rushed him to the Holy Spirit Hospital. He survived the brutal attack but only after being stitched up in one hundred and eighty places and given a blood transfusion.
Onlookers caught hold of the two men and handed them over to the police. When the cops realised that two of their own were at the root of this dastardly act, the two men were let off on bail and later, the case was hushed up. Shashikant valiantly returned to the business with the bandages still on and knocked at all doors for justice, only to realize that off-duty rampage by a criminalized force in uniform held the system in paralysis. Shashikant is just a blip in the larger scheme of things. Whenever you are in the vicinity of the place the next time, go and look him up. The man, in his late thirties, looks significantly younger. He speaks with the erudition of a scholar. He could have been a CEO of a large company for the intellect and the wisdom he exudes and should be a poster child for small businesses. He runs no dance bar and does not peddle hash. He is not seeking to be the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He seeks no dole, no favors; no SEZ land. The man built a business with hard work and created employment for 33 people who would not ever find a job with the Tatas or at Infosys. And he pays his taxes before he uncorks each bottle of beer he serves. What happened at Shashikant Bar and Restaurant on May 21, 2004, could happen even in New York City. The only difference is that the culprits would have been brought to book. Not in India. Slowly, bitterly, Shashikant realised that he was up against a system that serves only big business.
The evening customers are trooping in, activity is picking up at the tables. I need to leave him now to run his business. Before I leave, I ask him if he would like to ask me anything. The man looks at me with stoic silence for a moment and then slowly, with measured pain in a voice that left me silent, says just two words: Why me? I step outside and shudder for a moment. My mind can’t help wonder what the two off-duty cops and their stand-by paper cutter accomplices are up to tonight.