“I can never forget those haunted, pleading eyes. It was the worst ethical dilemma of my journalistic career.”
I looked up from my book as Uncle Tito said these words. He looked unkempt and ill in his two-day old clothes. For some reason, he had foregone bathing for a couple of days. His face was unshaven and dirty. In his eyes, I could see a twinge of guilt and regret. I had just fought with him and called him a selfish person.
Now, he was confessing to me about some long-forgotten sin. No one in the family understood Uncle Tito. He used to be a journalist, until one day, he just walked out of his office. He quit, much to the consternation of everyone. They all thought that he should stay on no matter what happened. Nobody, until now, knew what was that that made him quit.
He looked at me with a kind of wariness, which was understandable since he wouldn’t want me launching into another emotional tirade about his lifestyle. But, I just took a long deep breath and continued staring at him wondering why he was telling me this.
“I was at the Daily Chronicle at the time.” Tito had worked with a bunch of different newspapers. The Daily Chronicle was the one he was working in when he quit.
“My editor asked me to cover a story about a politician who had just died. He asked me to write a feature on him. I didn’t want to do it. I was a columnist, I don’t do features, I told him.”
Ah yes, Tito’s big ego. Many people I knew would vouch that his ego was what caused his downfall. When we were younger, Tito would go on and on about how his writing was praised by everyone who was anyone and how there could never be a single writer to equal him. Also about how his editors would accept everything he said. If they didn’t he would just walk out. As a result he had changed 9 different newspapers. As children we would be filled with a sense of awe whenever we saw Tito. But, now, most of us being past forty, know what Tito’s real worth is.
Tito’s voice broke me out of my reverie. “Vimal was one editor that I really respected. He never bossed me around and always recognised my so-called worth. I didn’t want to get into an argument with him. So I just agreed to do a feature.”
He’d said “so-called worth”. Freudian slip?
Tito just went on. For a second I wondered if he was talking to me or himself.
“I remember I had such a tough time finding that man’s house. One would think that since he was a politician, at least his neighbours would know who he was. But, the kind of society that we live in today, nobody knows their neighbours” , Tito sighed.
“Why are you telling me this, Uncle Tito?” I asked.
He fixed his stare at me and said, “As I was saying, I got there after much difficulty. And once I went there, None of the family members would talk to me. They didn’t want to have to do anything with us “bloody reporters”. They said we had killed him with all the “rumours” that we’d been spreading about him. Only then did I realize where I was. I was at the house of Dayal Singh.”
I remembered Dayal Singh. Vaguely, though. He was a politician who got into a lot of trouble. One of those, anyway.
“Two days ago, I had done an expose on Dayal Singh. I did it for personal vendetta. One of my friends, Naseer, was murdered by his henchmen. But, he’d been acquitted by the courts. So much for the long arm of the law”, said Tito, with a cynical smile.
I remembered Naseer Uncle as well. He was an extremely cheerful person, who would always bring us some gift whenever he returned from one of those exotic lands. But when asked what he did for a living, Naseer Uncle, would always evade the question. We children had decided that Naseer Uncle was one of those amazing smugglers who always had big bungalows and a lot of cash and gold biscuits. My mother was never too fond of the man. She would tell us, “If you don’t listen to me, then I will get you into trouble with that policeman over there. Just like that Naseer will, one day.”
Tito’s soliloquy was still going on, “I decided to get back at him by finding out all his misdeeds. I uncovered a vast load of information about him, mostly from sources who were willing to tell all for a fiver. Of course, most of this information was bad news.
Dayal’s wife, Nafisa, was standing on the verandah when I went to his house. Dayal had apparently died of a heart attack. When pressed for more information, she said that he had heard about some reporter doing an exposing story about him. She almost spat out the word reporter”, Tito was looking straight through me when he said this.
“One of my sources was Dayal’s child’s nanny. She was just looking for a way to make a quick buck. She would bring the child along whenever she gave me information. That day, at Dayal’s house I saw the child. She was a little girl of three of four. She looked at me and came running to me. Nafisa saw this and asked me if I wanted to see the body and take pictures of it. I nodded and went in, expecting her to kill me with the first weapon that she could lay her hands on”, Tito’s eyes were becoming animated. But he was still speaking to the wall.
“She pulled me inside a room. I shut my eyes, expecting the worst. She then began crying softly. I was shocked, or rather surprised. She asked me not to publish that story about Dayal. She kept saying that it would destroy the family’s reputation and that her daughter’s life would be affected by it. I didn’t know what to say to her. She looked at me with those eyes, pleading me to burn all evidence. I couldn’t respond to her. I just turned around and walked away. Even after I had reached the end of the street I could hear her words in my head. “Please don’t hurt us.” I did not know what I was doing.”
“Uncle, you don’t have to tell me this”, I said. I definitely didn’t want to know why Uncle Tito had quit his job. Especially if it was going to be a bad ending. Well, it was, considering that he had quit.
Tito couldn’t stop himself at this point, “The next day, my sub-editor asked me for my expose. Vimal, my editor had no clue about the expose. I walked up blankly to his desk and submitted my story. I then went to my editor and gave him my resignation letter. He thought it was my feature and asked me to wait. I turned and walked out of the office. I vowed never to write in my life after that.”
I was listening to Tito intently. I was steepling my fingers under my chin and staring at him with a kind of concentration that I had long lost. But, Tito was finished with his story. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. His face seemed relieved. He had shaken off his burden and suddenly I felt heavier. I abruptly stood up. Nothing could move Tito now.
I walked out of the room and into the little vegetable garden that I had created with my 10-year old son. I sat on a terracotta horse near the “veggie patch” as my son called it and thought why Tito had chosen me to be the one to listen to the mystery behind him giving up a job that he’d loved so dearly. I wondered about Dayal Singh’s daughter, who would definitely be around thirty-five years now, if she was alive. Did she have to live a life consumed with shame, knowing what her father had done? Had her mother told her about the opportunist reporter who had sold out everything that they’d lived for? Did she hate Tito as much as he hated himself for what he had done to her?
As all these questions popped into my head, I heard the gate creaking and turned around to see my son walk in with his school satchel. His pants were dirty and he was crying. I ran to him and took him in. “What happened?” I asked. His wailing got louder. I then picked him up in my arms and took him inside. I was trying to get him to stop crying when Tito looked up at my son and said, “You’re one of the few lucky ones. Cry all you can, for you might never be able to cry in front of your mother very soon.”