Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The beggar

I saw her every day.Always in the same spot ,sitting on her haunches ,one thin wrinkled hand holding on to the loose end of her tattered sari and the other cupped around her closest friend ,her begging bowl.I doubt if she herself had any clue regarding her age.She looked about sixty…her eyes looked older.I had been seeing her sitting on the side of the railway track near the Edapally railway station with an interestingly expressionless face.Every morning she would be there at 8:30 AM…she seemed more punctual than most of the people punching in at the place I work.She would have vanished by 6:00 pm when I returned from work.One day after almost a year of seeing her daily I went up and talked to her.She seemed shocked to see someone offering her a voice instead of the customary 50 paise or 1 Rupee coin.She recovered quickly and her wizened face contorted into what I assumed was a smile.We got talking….understandably uncomfortable with the conversation at first.
“Ammachi….where do you live”I enquired as naturally as I could
Her reply was predominantly in the form of hazy gestures and even hazier mumbles vaguely indicating that she had some kind of a dwelling about half a kilometer from her begging spot.
“ Have you had any food today ?Are you hungry?”Like a magician I produced a packet of biscuits from my bag with a flourish and offered it to her.I hoped to god that I wasn’t sounding condescending at any point.She gave me a curious look for a moment ,the kind of look you reserve for your psychotic acquaintances whom you can’t walk away from.She hesitantly rested her bowl on the stone laden track and then extended her hand to me.I gave her the packet.For a brief while we just stared through each other.Soon she was rummaging into her heavily soiled cloth sack Now it was her turn to act magician and pull out a rabbit. The rabbit,this time was in the form of a couple of torn lottery tickets ,that looked like a train might have run over them The pieces were still miraculously together.With a soft almost a smile like pursing of her lips ,she offered me one of the tickets. I couldn’t figure out if she was just offering me the ticket as a gift or whether she expected me to pay for them.With my obsession for political correctness I pulled out my purse from my back pocket and picked out 20 bucks.
“No..No…this is for you..no money”She simply refused to give me a chance to display any magnanimity.
Now I felt really bad …I mean considering that a pack of biscuits cost 10 rupees ,she wasn’t getting a very good bargain.She might have been marginally better off financially if I hadn’t intruded on her well set morning routine.I decided to make it up to her over the coming days.
We said good byes as uncomfortably and formally as fresh acquaintances could.As I strolled across the track I scrutinized the lottery ticket in my hand.I looked back to see her back to her begging in right earnest.She used to sit precariously close to the track.I though I’ll mention this point to her the next time I see her.
‘Kerala Bhagyakuri – 1st prize 10 lakhs’.As usual the ticket was embedded with a photograph of a sad looking maruti car ,which was the bonus prize for the lucky winner.The date of the draw was a week later.It had been ages since I had bought a lottery ticket.I had no illusions regarding my fortunes in such matters.At the same time I couldn’t help but think how the old lady could afford buying not one but two lottery tickets when she was never sure if she would have enough for her next meal.I intended to ask her next day…maybe advise her not to spend her meager income on such games of chance.

The next day she smiled as I approached her.Without much of a prelude I offered her a pack of biscuits.This time she took it without any hesitation and she didn’t offer me anything in return.In the brief conversation we had that day I broached the issue of wasteful expenditure.Some where in the middle of my sermon ,her face twisted back to one of those ‘Are you crazy son?’ looks and then back to her mona lisa smile.
“ I save every month for two tickets” she explained her economic policy in a slow deliberate manner ,with a gravity akin to our finance ministers during the budget sessions. “ I have been doing the same thing for the last 6 years” as though that justified doing it again.
“And I suppose you’ve made millions” I asked sarcastically …and regretted it immediately
Her face seemed suddenly covered by dark clouds.She sat pensively for a moment “No ..I do get a 10 or 20 Rupees once a while. ..maybe someday I’ll get the big prize”

“What’ll you do with 10 lakhs ?I enquired ,a bit of sarcasm still coating my words.

“10 lakhs ?Who wants 10 lakhs?I just want some money to put a tin roof over my house ….it gets very difficult during the monsoons” the lines on her face seemed to reflect the misery in her thoughts .

The lump in my throat was getting uncomfortably larger.I resolved to act good Samaritan and help her get a roof over her head.The next I forcefully accompanied her to her hut by the railway track ,half a kilometer down the track.She was visibly flustered at first when invited myself over ,her discomfort faded by the time we reached By then the discomfort was all mine.I couldn’t imagine how she could live here.The ‘house’ was basically a few distorted bamboo poles unhappily tied together with a extensively patch worked piece of blue tarpaulin acting as an excuse for a roof.It seemed a pretty exclusive locality though ,with no immediate neighbours in site.She didn’t invite me in ,primarily because there wasn’t enough room for two adult humans in there.She offered me half a semi-ripe banana as a formality ,which I gracefully declined.After hardly 5 minutes of extremely small talk I bade goodbye.I had seen what I wanted to.I estimated that the tin roof of her dreams would hardly cost a thousand bucks.I made up my mind to get her the same by the end of the week.I didn’t know how she would react to my planned act of charity .I imagined that she would be bashfully overjoyed.No matter what people say ,I think there is nothing wrong in gloating a bit over a good deed.To make matters slightly exciting ,the monsoons were slated to hit Kerala in a couple of days .Of course considering the accuracy of our met department, I assumed we were good for a couple of weeks at least.

On a Friday morning ,two days later ,I was back to work when my lazy eyes fell on a folded ‘Mathrubhumi ‘ newspaper on my secretaries desk.I sifted through the pages filled with dirty politicians and their dirtier deeds to arrive at my target the results of the draw for the ‘Kerala Bhagyakuri’ lottery.I had memorized my ticket number.As is our natural tendency my eyes searched from above to below,from the bumper of 10 lakhs to the measly 10 rupee consolation prizes.Somewhere in the middle my mind froze.I rushed to my room and picked up the tattered ticket from the side pocket of my bag and crosschecked ,my heart pounding in anticipation.There it was ..the same numbers ,exactly the same numbers …the ticket had won ten thousand bucks.In the flurry of emotions that stampeded over my mind ,there was a momentary pinch of selfishness ,which tried to coax me into holding on to the money…but I got over it ..great soul that I was.I just couldn’t wait to tell her the news.
As the clock struck six ,I rushed out with the golden ticket in my hand.I didn’t notice the darks clouds in the sky that had ominously started casting their shadows ,waiting for their pregnant bellies to rupture.By the time I reached the edge of the railway track a light drizzle had started.As I reached near her begging spot , I noticed her begging bowl sitting desolately on the edge of the track.It was strange for her to be around here at this time.My eyes panned about searching for her vainly. I ran as fast as I could and reached her hut in a little less than 5 minutes. It was raining heavily by now.I was completely out of breath by the time I pulled the tarpaulin sheets to peek into the place she called home.

She was inside ,drenched in the rain ,holding a piece of paper in her hand and a dazed look on her face.Besides her lay a worn out sheet of the ‘Mathrubhumi’ newspaper.
She gave me a cursory glance and then went back to her zombie act.
“I…I was worried …I saw your begging bowl there..on the track”
“hmmm” A grunt and a sigh “ Yes..I forgot to take it ,I came back in a hurry”
I waited for her to continue
“The lottery ….the result…”She was almost incoherent as she gesture towards the newspaper sheet.

I didn’t know whether this was the right time to break the news.She was obviously quite upset at having another unsuccessful attempt on the Kerala state lottery.With as much of dramatism I could muster I handed over the ticket in my hand and closed her palms over it.
“ Your ticket won…ten thousand rupees..you can get a new roof and maybe a new house altogether”

After another extended period of muteness ,she started sobbing ,gently at first to shift into full force in matter of seconds.I gave her a light hug and a pat on her back and got up deciding to leave her to savour her tears of joy in solitude.

I never saw her again.She wasn’t there at the railway track the next day. I went to her place in the evening and her place had vanished .No bamboo poles ,no tarpaulin.In the following days I did think of her often.I wondered what she would have done with her ten grand.Wondering why she didn’t even thank me for my generousness.

It was two weeks later that I happened to see a tiny newspaper snippet in a local newspaper about a beggar who had won two prizes in a single lottery draw.One for ten thousand rupees and one for 10 lakhs.


dame's diary said...

Is this based on real life experience?

or just plain fiction?

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