Though there are no labels which differentiate one person from the other, that man did look like a beggar. His whole personality, the geography of his body, the way he walked, everything seemed to proclaim with the beat of a drum that he couldn’t be anything but a beggar.
He passed by my house every morning. With his eyes downcast, he gave the impression of looking for something in the dusty roads, something he had lost a long time back. His frail body swaying, his long legs measuring the steps unhurriedly, his clothes hanging in loose tatters on his lean frame, he walked past
my house every morning.
His very appearance made my morning cup of tea taste bitter.
Besides, the stench emanating from an empty plot of land in my neighbourhood, where all the filth and litter of the colony was carelessly dumped, was enough to turn my tea into a bitter medicinal brew.
To enjoy morning tea one needs a relaxed mind. The chirping of the early morning birds, the first soothing rays of the sun, the sky turning soft pale-blue, the silence stretching into the far-off eternity, all these lend a flavour to the first cup of tea in the morning. Every hot sip pushes out the lingering languor from the body and soul. A hot cup of tea and the stillness around fill me with a strange peace, more intense than the early morning breeze. It is a sort of talisman which gives me confidence to face the onslaught of day’s routines.
But the sight of this beggar ruined my composure and shattered my peace. Day after day.
I didn’t notice him in the beginning. He might have been treading this road for ages, but I didn’t see him. I am one of those introverts who don’t see much when their gaze is turned inwards. The morning tea does that to me. I start looking inwards. Step by step I climb down the ravines of my mind and soul, and descend into a very silent valley where solitude reverberates in its myriad silences, a vast expanse where I feel strangely humbled.
Outside, the sky keeps changing its soft pastel colours, the sparrows keep singing bhairavi, the leaves keep trembling under the caress of the half-drunk breeze.
A moment suspended between the pale blue of the sky and soft ochre of the earth!
That beggar destroyed this precious moment every morning.
The stench emanating from the garbage heap in the empty plot of land spoiled this enchanting moment.
One doesn’t need firearms and sharp weapons to kill. There are these small irritants which keep killing you in bits every single day of your existence.
His rags hung loose on his torso. A loose cloth with a million patches covered his skeletal legs. He carried a dirty bundle thrown across his shoulder, which dangled like a dead pup on his back.
He passed my house, and my tea turned bitter. He didn’t look up. He didn’t look towards any house. He had never looked up at my balcony. But the very sight of him made me uncomfortable. I felt soiled.
Every time I look at a beggar, anywhere, I am overcome by a strange sense of shame. As if I have committed some sort of sin. As if I am responsible, in some strange way, for turning a human being into a beggar.
I had always seen him walking by. His legs seemed to give way under him. I was afraid his next step would throw him sprawling and spread-eagled on the road.
Below the loose, patched-up cloth around his lower frame, his legs looked like dry weeds. His bare feet looked flat and wooden. I always felt, with a strange fear gripping my throat, that he would fall flat on the road opposite my house. Who would pick him up then? By the time somebody reached him, a splash of black blood would ooze out of his mouth and nostrils.
I don’t know how, but I was convinced his blood would not be red, it would be black, the colour of his skin.
It was difficult to imagine that it was blood which ran in his veins. I had a vague feeling that there would be a fistful of ash inside his loosely assembled skeleton, over which his black skin was stretched tight.
No, my friends, I don’t ever feel pity. Pity is a sentiment which gives me a feeling of something creepy and slimy. And how many times a day can you allow this sentiment to overpower and strangle you? Every day you come across hundreds of such people. They look so much alike that it is difficult to tell one from the other. Can you recognise the pariah dogs in your locality, or the hungry cows rummaging drowsily through the garbage dumps? One has to thicken one’s skin and turn it into the hide of a rhinoceros. This country we live in demands it of us. That is the only way to go about the business of living.
Anyway, I was always a bit surprised when he came walking, a little unsteady on his feet, and passed by my house without looking at anyone or anything around him.
Beggars don’t behave like this, I thought. He should at least stop somewhere, look at somebody, should ask for a piece of bread or a couple of coins in a whining, helpless voice. Should ask for alms in the name of Allah or of Ram.
But he never stopped anywhere!
He might be a professional beggar, I thought, to overcome a feeling of uneasiness. Like all other professionals, he must be having his own territory to beg in. Usually beggars do have such territories, don’t they? Some road-crossing where the shining cars have to stop at the signals; some exclusive place outside a mandir or a gurudwara, or outside a hospital gate where people tend to turn soft and charitable.
Even barbers and hawkers, the fruit and vegetable vendors, the jal-jeera sellers and the wayside chana-bhathoora carts, all have their exclusive spots from where they conduct their business.
This fellow too must be having such a place to do his business. He must be carrying a dented aluminium bowl in his ragged bundle which he would then keep in front of him to collect alms.
But I could never imagine how he would be going about his business of begging. I couldn’t picture him whining in a squeaky voice, begging for mercy and evoking pity in the hearts of the people.
Does he have a family?—I wondered. Someone to connect him with life! Someone to establish his identity on this merciless earth!
No, I just couldn’t think of him surrounded by anyone but his own tatters.
He was alone like God.
Like God? Alone?—I shuddered at my thought.
I looked at him.
Suddenly, like being hit by an earthquake, I saw that he had no shadow.
Where is his shadow?
If he had one, it should be walking behind him like a pet dog, or should be moving in front of him like a small child holding his walking stick, leading his way.
The sun was yet to go up in the sky. Had it been there in the middle of the sky, I could have tried to locate his shadow near his feet, like a small purring cat.
Wasn’t it incredible? Was he an ethereal being, or perhaps a ghost? Someone from the outer space! Where was his shadow?
Could it be that he had mortgaged his shadow to have a drink! Or sold it off for a morsel of bread! Or had he gambled it away? Who knows!
And why not! It is after all his own shadow. He can do anything with it, can’t he?—I relaxed and smiled.
And suddenly I remembered what my grandmother used to say. She said, God doesn’t have a body like ours, nor does He have a shadow. Thinking about my grandmother and her version of God—as if God was her next door neighbour and she had a more-than-nodding acquaintance with Him!—a sort of mist began to spread in the air around me.
Was he God then? Carrying a dirty bundle thrown over his shoulder which swung softly on his back as he walked. What was he carrying in that bundle? The worn-out, tattered account-books of our good and bad deeds, of our pains and pleasures? Or well-kneaded, soft clay to be moulded into humans and animals and birds and fish? Or, perhaps, the secrets of the universe, of life and death! Or was he carrying explosives for the ultimate catastrophe, the Day of Judgement when everything will cease to exist and the earth will explode into a million particles!
How I wished he would change his route! How I wished the stinking open space in my neighbourhood, where garbage lay in huge piles, would evaporate in thin air! Without these two irritants, life could once again start off with a peaceful, soft note in the azure dawn.
These two irritants were like thorns in my flesh. I couldn’t run away from them, nor could I wish them away.
I have already told you about the garbage heaps across my wall. This was the only plot of land in the colony which was lying vacant. People said the person it belonged to was probably dead, and his heirs were fighting over their rights over his property in some court or the other. They said this person was the owner of a couple of factories and quite a number of buildings in the city. All those things that man keeps collecting in the fond hope that he is doing it all for his children, to make their lives comfortable! In the process he himself becomes a beast of burden. Now he was dead, and the children were eating their hearts out fighting for the possession of that property.
It would naturally take long to decide about every claimant’s rights.
In the meanwhile, this piece of land was lying like an abandoned orphan in the middle of the colony, and the garbage of every house ultimately found its way to it. In the morning you could see the female sweepers dressed in their gaudy clothes carrying pailfuls of garbage to it, their hips swinging in a rhythm under the weight they were carrying. The servants of the colony dumped all their garbage here.
Once a lawsuit enters the labyrinth of our courts, nobody knows when it will conclude. It might take the heirs a whole lifetime awaiting the decision. Who knows if their children would still be fighting it when they are gone!
Court cases are like God’s own intestines, sitting curled up inside His vast tummy. Who can guess their length!
This piece of land was right beside my wall. So I was the only victim of all the stench and stink emanating from it. In the beginning I had made an effort to implore the others not to use it as a garbage dump. Nobody listened. Who can afford to have a hundred enemies? So I stopped pleading and wrote to the Municipal Corporation. It was rather foolish of me because who doesn’t know that government officers don’t respond to letters of ordinary mortals like me?
Eventually I went there personally. Every clerk asked me to move on, talk to another one. That is how government offices function, just pushing everybody to the next table. They made me feel that I was not a human but a rubber ball to be tossed around.
Everyone looked quite busy, with piles of files on their tables, smoking and sipping tea from dirty cups to fight away their boredom.
Only once a clerk looked up, looked straight at me and said, “How much can you spend for it?”
“Will I have to pay for your sweepers?” I was baffled by his question.
Foolish of me, I confess, but I don’t know!
He smiled and said, “No madam, not the sweeper.”
“Look, we don’t have to open Swiss accounts with your money. But these things do cost a little.”
“Taking action on your application. We are twenty-six people in this office. After all, we have to feed our families.”
I felt a strange revulsion for the man.
Though I hardly saw any municipal sweeper in our colony, I enquired where I could find the inspector-incharge of the sweepers there. He was not available. The same clerk again came over to me and said, “Madam, he will never be available. If you want to meet him, come here on the pay day. On that day, all the sweepers who are supposed to work in your colony, but have never gone there, would collect their pay only to give half of it away to the Inspector. You can definitely find him here that day,” he smiled his pale-toothed, roguish smile.
I came back in disgust.
If I paid that man, he would probably get the place cleaned up once. But the next day it would again start piling up, I was sure of that.
Not only garbage, all those things which were discarded by every household and which couldn’t be sold off to the kabadiwala, also found their way to this wasteland. Broken cups and saucers, buckets with dents and holes in them, broken plastic toys and containers, discarded soap dishes and toothbrushes, pieces of paper and soiled rags, broken pitchers and flowerpots, polythene bags and peels of fruits and vegetables, everything found its way there.
In between these garbage piles, weeds and wild grass grew, spreading slowly in every direction.
Almost every colony in South Delhi is situated around an old, dilapidated village. Pigs from the village at the back of our colony were regular visitors to this place which offered a free dinner to them. They came wobbling on their thin, short legs, their heavy bellies almost sweeping the ground below and rummaged through the heaps of trash with their longish snouts above which two tiny beads blinked with greed and excitement.
How I wished this wasteland would evaporate in thin air!
How I wished that beggar would change his route!
One day when he was walking across my house, with me wishing him dead, I saw he slowed his monotonous pace and stopped in front of the neighbouring strip of wasteland, looking at it intently with an almost philosophical concentration.
It occurred to me that this man might not actually be a beggar but one of those scroungers whom you see near every garbage dump in the cities, collecting pieces of paper and rags, empty bottles and cans, pieces of iron and tin, rusty nails and broken vessels, discarded plastic bottles and mugs and soap-cases in their gunny sacks. They carry these bulging gunny sacks to sell them to the kabadiwala. If they work around the day, they probably manage to eat a square meal and can smoke a couple of bidis in between. Bidis are the most efficient antidotes of hunger, aren’t they?
That is fine with me, I thought. This poor rogue can collect enough from here. All this garbage can see him through for a couple of days. I felt very generous. My tea was no longer a bitter concoction.
I was feeling strangely at peace with him. As if our cold war had come to a peaceful end!
I felt as if all this trash and litter and garbage had been collected by me so that one day I could give it away—to this poor man! I felt strangely cleansed and satisfied.
Feeling proud of my great act of generosity, I got up from the balcony, and walked in. ‘Let the poor man enjoy his new-found treasure in peace!’—I thought.
Now he came every day and walked straight to the adjacent wasteland. He no longer looked as if he was walking in his sleep. His gait was more sure, and his steps more firm and purposeful.
His presence no longer annoyed me. He had come like an angel, I thought, to clean away all that filth. And in the bargain, he was probably making a decent living out of it. All because of my generosity!
Lest he should feel embarrassed by the presence of his benefactor, I usually went in when he entered that wasteland.
It was about six days after that first morning he had hesitatingly entered this treasure-trove. Walking my dog in the street, I stopped before that vacant plot of land to see how much of the refuse he had stowed away. How many more days he could live on the royal treasure that I had given away to him in my generosity.
The copper canopy of the sky after sunset looked at peace with itself. So was I.
And then, suddenly what I saw gave me a jolt. He was sitting there in the remote corner and was busy doing something. A considerable stretch of land around him, about thirty to forty square metres of it, was absolutely clean. Sitting in the middle of that clean stretch, he seemed to be engaged in some serious work.
I was more than surprised.
I didn’t expect to see him there.
‘What has he been doing here since morning? Does he spend his whole day here?’
Nobody could sit in such a filthy place from early morning till this time of the evening.
He might be busy putting his collection in his gunny sack. Might be making several rounds to the kabadi dealer. Must be getting enough money for such concentrated labour. Must be eating his fill these days.
I again felt very generous and very fulfilled.
My ego boosted, my heart at peace, I brought my dog back home.
Another week went by.
I saw that about half of the plot was now cleaned up. The clean piece of land lay there in its light-brown innocence, the colour of naked earth!
Where had those wild bushes and grass gone to?—I wondered.
What does he do with the wild bushes which are not easy to uproot anyway. And the grass! For his goat? No, he didn’t look as if he had a goat of his own. He might be selling the grass and the bushes to someone.
‘Ah well, as long as he is benefitting from this treasure, let him do whatever he likes,’ I thought.
Suddenly, in the middle of the night, a horrible premonition made me sit up with a jerk. It came as a rude shock and almost shook me out of my stupor.
Oh my God, why didn’t it occur to me before?
It would be a catastrophe. That type of people often do it. In fact, they do it all the time, all over the city. They locate a deserted, unclaimed place, clean it up, stick four poles in the ground and cover them up with gunny sacks, with tarpaulin and polythene pieces, and build a shack to live in. Gradually the earth is dug up, kneaded with water and the walls come up.
Such a dirty shack, and that too in my neighbourhood! And this tattered man will now be living in that shack!
The very idea sent a chill down my spine.
He might bring his pale and sickly wife too, wrapped in rags. And his naked children, with their running noses. They will keep crying because of hunger, and quarrelling among themselves for a few morsels of bread. His wife will keep nagging him, and after being beaten would wail loudly.
That way pigs were no problem. They came in the morning, and were taken back home in the evening. But these people would live here forever. These people, who were more dirty and filthy and obnoxious than the pigs!
It will be a total disaster.
I should have understood it on that first morning when he looked at this place with malicious intent and sauntered into it. I should have understood that evening when I saw him cleaning the place and completely engrossed in doing so.
How could I be so blind!
How could I be so stupid!
If he makes his shack here, his children will roam around in our neighbourhood all the time. Not those poor pigs, but real, naked, filthy children!
It would become impossible to live next to this filth!
These people will light the fire for cooking, and the smoke would waft towards our house.
In the morning, they will carry thin dented tin containers full of water, and defecate near our back wall.
Flies will sit on their excreta and would jauntily fly into our house, contaminating everything.
What will happen now?
Once a shack comes up, others will also mushroom around the place. The place will soon be a regular slum. And once the slum is there, nobody can wish it away. If, per chance, elections are around the corner, this slum will be regularised by the government. The more the number of shacks, the quicker the regularisation, because democracy is all a game of numbers.
The rest of the night crawled too slowly. I was sitting on a volcano ready to erupt. I was annoyed at my utter naivety because while I was being robbed right under my nose, I kept sipping my tea, feeling generous and at peace with myself.
I spent the whole night making plans. I will ring up the police as soon as the day breaks, I tried to remember if I knew anybody in the city police hierarchy. For such things, knowing somebody personally comes in handy. Unless you know a person who is a somebody, you can’t hope to move even a straw. That is how things work in this country, don’t they? Either you should know a higher-up, or you should know how to present a nazraana to somebody lower down who is capable of delivering the goods.
Ringing up everybody I knew should be the first thing that I would do in the morning. And when that man comes to the neighbouring plot of land in pursuit of his evil designs, the policemen would pounce on him, give him a few hard blows, and shout at him, “You b…b….! Is it your father’s property? How dare you enter it? In future if we find you entering this colony, we’ll break your legs. Your wife might be able to use them for fuel for her choolah!”
It was after ages that the sky changed its colour to a soft pale-blue, and the sparrows started singing their first tentative notes.
It was just six o’clock. You can’t ring up any decent man at six in the morning. Dealing with higher-ups, one has to behave like a civilised person. The earliest one can ring up someone is eight.
In the meanwhile let me go and see what he has done about constructing his shack, I thought. And walked towards the neighbouring plot of land.
Reaching there, I was dumbfounded. As if I had been struck by a thunderbolt.
My feet turned into clay, and my whole body sagged. I simply collapsed there holding my head in both my hands, with a fierce storm raging in it.
In the centre of that cleaned-up place, there stood a tiny little house made of soft clay. Neat and clean, and colourful. One in which my daughter’s doll and its family could live in heavenly bliss.
Yes, it looked like a doll’s house built by fairies.
Nice little rooms. Their width was the width of my palm, with about the same length. Small, colourful glass pieces, which probably came from broken bottles, were used to make the windows, doors and ventilators. On the roof-top there was a red soap case lying upside down, looking like a colourful penthouse.
There was a garden in front, about a yard long and a yard wide. Tiny little sprouts were visible in that. Probably he had sown the seeds of some flowers. Marigolds? Sunflowers? Jasmine? Or probably just the tiny little seedlings from the nearby neem. They might also be papayas and oranges, whose seeds must be lying scattered in the garbage dump.
The house also had a backyard. Half the size of the front garden. On one side of the backyard was a choolah made of mud. Nobody on this earth could cook food on this open hearth.
Only God could cook His food on a choolah like that.
Near the house a rivulet flowed. It was made of a strip of blue paper. It was God alone who could fill His pitcher from this rivulet.
The same one who had sowed the seed of a barren dream on this wasteland.
All dreams defy logic.
One needs the same courage to sow the seeds of dreams with which God created this universe out of an eternal void.
I sat there, and felt as if roots were sprouting out of my being, and were going deep into the soil.
I was gazing at that house.
After a long time, almost an eternity, I realised I was crying.