It was Thursday. I was at my study table in the balcony completing my homework. The clock on the wall, which my grandmother set half an hour ahead of the actual time, displayed 9.30. It was a regular morning at Matunga, where I grew up. The sour aroma of dosas being cooked in several houses in the neighbourhood permeated the air. Kolams (decorative artwork drawn on the floor in front of deities in puja rooms or in front of houses), made of rice flour, sprang up outside the main doors of the neighbouring apartments, their intricate patterns livening up the locality. At a neighbour’s house, M. S. Subbulakshmi’s Suprabhatam was playing a trifle late in the day, on a turntable. In the predominantly South Indian, Tamil Brahmin locality, rising after 6 am was unbecoming. If M. S. would have known that her rendition was played so many hours after sunrise, she may have objected to such deviant behaviour.
Despite the buzz of the diurnal activities, stillness settled upon the locality, punctured sporadically by the cries of hawkers on their daily rounds. There were Batlibais (two old women who bought your old glass bottles for a nominal price and who had timed their respective arrivals in the locality in such a way that their interests didn’t clash), the Chaaku-dhaarwala (the bearded man who walked with a manually operated knife-sharpening machine on his back and who restored the sharp edges of blunt knives), the Chana-sengwala (the middle-aged migrant from Uttar Pradesh, who was always clad in a spotless white, starched kurta pyjama, and who slouched under the weight of a large deep blue Rexene sack filled with puffed rice, peanuts and chick peas), the Phoolwala (vending a basket full of roses, white ginger lilies and asters), and other nomadic merchants.
Then, there were the beggars. They were so punctual and organised it seemed they held secret meetings to time their arrivals and departures to avoid a clash of interests. This, in spite of the fact that they were competing for free food and essentials. They showed up on their appointed day at the appointed hour, stood under the balconies of the houses and announced their arrival. Housewives waited for their calls to dispense with the leftovers. The large-hearted ones also added a portion of freshly cooked food to the donation. As I began filling up my school bag that day, I heard the familiar, “Aaaaaaaaaaaa”, a prolonged pronouncement of the sound of the alphabet ‘a’ as it is pronounced in the word ‘apple’. It shattered the morning calm. It was followed by similar pronouncements, each one louder than the previous one. I got up from my seat despite grandmother’s warning: “What is there to see? That fellow comes every Thursday. Haven’t you seen him before? Interrupting your studies like that!” I ignored her admonishment and looked down.
The moment he saw me he let out another “Aaaaaaaaaaa.” That’s all he could speak. Everyone knew him as the mute beggar. He was thin, his arms almost touching his knees, his fingers curling inward to make a bowl of his palm. He raised the palm to his mouth, joining the tips of his fingers to form a cone and touched his lips repeatedly to indicate he was hungry. I saw the toe of his right foot peeping out of the large hole in his shoe. On the other was a rubber slipper whose straps were held in place by a thin rope. He wore a muddy, sleeved vest and what looked like a lungi that had been pulled up and secured at the waist to resemble a pair of shorts. When his gesticulation had no effect on me, he looked around to check if people in the neighbouring apartments had responded to his call and come out to the balconies. Disappointed, he let out another “Aaaaaaaaaaaa” and resumed his miming. Straightening his palm and holding it parallel to the ground, he pulsed it first at the waist level, then at the hip level and then, bending low, at the level of his knees. He joined the thumb and forefinger of his other hand, stretched out the remaining three fingers and waved the hand in front of my eyes. The other hand touched his lips again. This was a regular feature and it never failed to provoke me to act.
I ran to my grandmother, pulled her arm and cajoled her. “Please, Mamama, give the beggar 10 paise at least. His three little children are hungry.” Ten paise may not have been a princely sum in those days, but you could buy a loaf of bread with it. “The rate at which we give money to these beggars, they will get used to all the pampering and never work,” grandmother chided, but handed over the 10 paise to me. “That lout is lazy. So what if he’s dumb? His hands and legs are perfectly fine. He just doesn’t want to use them. This is the last time I’m giving him alms,” she warned. I threw the 10 paise coin down and the beggar caught it with both his hands, touched the coin to his forehead, and joining his hands in a namaste, walked away.
A week passed. Thursday arrived again. Realising that we needed bread, grandmother gave me some money to fetch it from the Irani café down the road. I knew there would be some change left after buying the loaves. I decided to save 10 paise from the leftover money and give it to the dumb beggar when he arrived, as I was sure grandmother would not be goaded into being generous, now that her mind was made up about not encouraging the beggar’s sloth. When I reached the café, a familiar figure was already at the counter, where the owner sat on a tall stool either directing people to the tables or handing over bread, chocolates, biscuits, toast, and other confectionery, on demand. The man stood with his back to me. I saw him remove a coin from a bag I had seen for years and which I recognised, and hand it over to the owner. “Baad mein mat poocho, paisa hai kya. Pehle hi de raha hoon… (Don’t ask me later if I have the money. I’m giving it to you in advance),” he said, as he kept the four-anna coin on the counter. “Ek pechhial chai aur brun maska… (One special tea and buttered bread),” he ordered.
It couldn’t be, I thought. How could two people look so similar? Maybe they were twins. But, as the man walked towards the table, I saw his toe peeping out of the shoe, the black nail taunting me. I saw the rope that held his slipper together on his other foot. His clothes were thickened by layers of dirt. So was his skin. He was a mass of grey. He settled down on a chair and placed his bag on the floor. Raising his arm, he called out to the waiter. I forgot that I was on an errand. I vacillated between disbelief and realisation. To think that I was going to steal a coin from the leftover money and invite my grandmother’s wrath and betray her trust to help a cheat!
“Baby, kya chahiye? What do you want?” the owner, who knew me well, asked. I stared at him dumbstruck. “Haan, baby, bolo, tell me,” he repeated. Shaken out of my stupor, I mumbled something, my eyes still on the beggar, who was breaking pieces of the hard bread, dipping them in the tea and wolfing them down. Suddenly, he looked up and our eyes met. They were the same grey eyes that had implored me into being beneficent, a week ago. Fear gripped me. ‘He knows that I know’, I thought. Either he hadn’t recognised me or pretended that he hadn’t. He held the saucer in which he had poured the tea with both his hands, lifted it to his lips and slurped away. I ran out of the café holding the brown paper package that held the bread loaves, and didn’t stop till I reached home. I filled my schoolbag and sat at my desk to read. “Aaaaaaaaaaaa,” I heard the beggar ululate, after a few minutes. I froze. He howled again. I continued reading, trying not to pay attention. Surprised at my seeming composure, grandmother asked me, “Why are you so quiet today?” “I’m studying, Mamama. What is there to talk?” I mustered, as I pressed my lips tight, and felt the colour rise to my cheeks.