Tuesday 1 September 2015

Short Story 2015, Featured Writers, Amar Agarwala

Alms For A Beggar

The old beggar tossed and turned restlessly on his worn out straw mat. It had seen better days and was torn in a few places, the edges were frayed in tatters. It no longer offered comfort as it once did. He should have disposed it a long ago but a strange sentiment made him keep it. Stubborn lingering memories of a kindly lady, who had gifted it to him during Id festivities, but that was decades ago.  He never had the means to replace it with a better one, and often wishfully thought that perhaps someday, he would be gifted a new one. He had little choice in the matter save for having to wait.  Begging on the streets of the city of Calcutta since as long as he could remember, had imbibed in him one great art – patience – it was golden for any beggar and the rest depended upon the cruel ironies of fate. 

There were days as this when he would not earn a penny, no kindly passers-by, the ones who had crossed him seemed hassled and harried in the oppressive heat of a sultry hot summer’s day. The Norwesters’ had strangely been absent that year and the denizens scarcely thought of charity, as they sauntered towards their destination, in half-baked agony.  A small ragged bundle of his personal belongings was kept beside on the pavement, with his head resting upon an old jute bag on which he said his Friday prayers. Once in a while he would gingerly touch it, feeling a strange reassurance at the pittance of his worldly possessions. Though it had almost nothing of value in it, that could be of use to anyone, perhaps even to a beggar. 

Every morning he would sit on his dirty crumpled jute bag, at the corner of Royd street, just near the Free School Street crossing. A piteous display of the tools of his trade carelessly strewn in front of him – an old dented aluminium bowl and a worn out wooden staff lying prostrate beside it. Once upon a time he carried it to entice pity of the passers-by for he had a bad limp, but now it came handy for walking, as his legs trembled and he often felt unsteady when he trundled by the streets.  At times he would keep the stick leaning against the sooty shutters of a ramshackle book-shop which had long gone out of business.  The adjoining walls were of an ancient tenement which was in a dilapidated state with the cemented plaster having long peeled off, and the bricks hideously grimacing from beneath. They were large cracks etched across its weather worn walls and the edifice looked a shambling apathy of disuse and neglect. The crumbling structure was perhaps as feeble as the beggar who sat in below it, occasionally retching sand, dust and broken slabs of plaster, shaken by the tremors caused by the busy intersection of streets in front.

The thoroughfares around it were always crowded with pedestrians and traffic, particularly during the peak office hours both in the morning and the evening when the street would turn one way or the other. It would be chaotic then, with people and vehicles jostling for space, each trying to outdo the other. The lone traffic policeman on duty would often have a trying time – yelling at an errant driver or blowing on his shrill whistle, frantically waving his arms to rein in a semblance of order.  A catastrophe of honking vehicles and the rattling of trams on their steel tracks made the evening more unbearable than what the old beggar could bear. 

He kept thinking of his next meal but then his coffers were empty and he was already feeling hopeless. The thought of taking his fill from a roadside tube-well before retiring for the night was looming large every passing hour.  It was a depressing feeling but he was no stranger it, even though the gnawing pangs of hunger were more discernible every passing minute.  His last and only meal of the day was some dry bread and a cup of weak tea around noon time, which were the offerings from a kindly neighbour who lived across the street. Its last vestiges had long vanished from his growling stomach which angrily churned in anticipation of more food.  He wanted to sleep and blot out the noise and the pangs of hunger which were tormenting his emaciated fragility but was not quite managing. Despite the appalling bluntness of his sense organs which was more of a boon, having gradually set in over the years, it seemed an uphill task he could barely manage.

To add to his distressing state he could hear someone crying, very close to where he lay in disconsolate apathy. The decibels of the howls grew louder and the beggar felt irritated, and he muttered inaudibly, “As if my harrowing state of affairs is not enough. Can God have some mercy on an old beggar..?”

The sobbing continued unabated, mingling with the chaotic bedlam of the streets and the rancour of clanking tramcars, the cacophony almost sounded jarring. Unable to bear it the beggar slowly stirred up, narrowed his eyes and peered ahead of where he lay. He could make out the silhouetted outlines of a little boy standing just a few yards away. The faint luminescence made it difficult for him to see in semi-darkness of the sparsely lit street.  The boy continued wailing, he was getting hiccups from the effort of it all. For a while the beggar thought of letting the boy be, but then despite himself he called out to the boy.

The boy came near and stood rubbing his eyes.  The beggar noticed he wore a pair of knickers and a vest and was bare-footed. He did not look more than seven or perhaps eight. Then though half-sobs he spoke the beggar but the loud rattling of a passing tramcar blotted out the sound and the old beggar could not understand for he was half deaf.

“What happened little boy..?  Why do you cry?
“I…I.. lost my puppy. He ran away from home,” he said with a pitiable look on his tear-stained face.
“How did that happen..?” The beggar asked anxious to placate the boy for whom he felt a tinge of pity.
“He was angry and then ran out of the house... and now I cannot find him.”
“But why do you wander around the streets alone, it is dangerous, besides it is night already,” the beggar said a hint of concern in his voice.
“There isn’t anyone home and no one to help me find my puppy,” the boy complained with his mouth pouted in sorrowful anxiety.

“Where do you live?”  The beggar asked unable to recollect if he had seen the boy around, for he knew the neighbourhood well.
“There,” the boy pointed with his fingers across the street towards some non-descript shops and a cluster of buildings, some of which were newly constructed.
“It’s late, you better go back home.  Not safe for children to roam the streets in this darkness,” the beggar spoke unconvincingly.
“No... I need to find my puppy. I cannot leave him alone, he would be scared and someone may take him away,” the boy sounded as if he would cry again.
The beggar understood the boy’s dilemma but could not find a remedy, besides he was hungry too and was disillusioned himself.

“Would you help me find my puppy…?” The little boy suddenly asked with a glimmer of radiance in his rounded eyes.
The beggar was silent for a while at the strange request, then blurted out, “I am too old to run around looking for puppies, besides, my eyes are weak and I can barely see in the dark,” the beggar almost pleaded not encouraged by the meekness of the little boy.
The boy stood silent for long minutes and then blurted out, “I have some money here, I can give it to you if you find him for me. As I have no one to help me,” so saying he waited for the old beggar’s reaction.
The old man was miffed; the thought of getting some money lured his conscience.  It would help buy him some dinner for himself.

The boy fidgeted in his trouser pockets and pulled out a pile of coins, and then he started carefully counting them.  The beggar waited in suspended animation wondering if he should accept the offer.  His stomach had noisily sought his attention more than once but he was helpless to heed to its call.  He waited for the boy to finish counting.  Having finished the boy turned to the beggar with an excited look in his eyes and said, “I have got exactly ten rupees, here take this.”

The beggar first gingerly extended his hand and then on second thoughts reluctantly withdrew it. He was not sure of the task, then on second thoughts said,  “No let us first find your puppy,” so saying he wearily got up with some effort.  Then taking his walking stick he wobbled across from where he sat, telling the tobacco vendor who sat a beside to keep a watchful eye on his straw mat and belongings lying at the corner.  The little boy held his hand and the beggar was grateful for that, his knees trembled and he had fallen down more than once over the past days.  The re-enforced support steadied his wobbly gait and together they began their search. 

The beggar solemnly enquired from a few acquaintances – mostly shopkeepers and vendors who sold their wares down the street and knew the sight of him.  But none could offer any clues; they even enquired from strangers, passers-by but got no conclusive answers.  Many even ignored their questions, for none really had time to reply to queries of a lost puppy, on a hot and sultry evening as that, when rushing to the comforts of their home seemed first priority.

They peeped inside large rusting pipes careless strewn across the footpath, dumped there by the municipality for repair work which never seemed to commence.  Even into little nooks and crannies on the street, inside sluices, where a little dog could hide but their efforts drew a blank.

“I can barely see in the dark, so you keep an eye while I take you around,” the beggar told the little boy who never let go of the beggar’s sweaty quivering hands.  They even managed to scurry across the busy street and looked into miniscule compounds and dingy lanes housing sordid old tenements which lay bathed in a pale glow of street lights and lighted windows of adjacent edifices.  It seemed an incredible task to look for a puppy, without any idea as to where the little creature had gone. Perhaps it was hiding out of fear of the quaint noisy neighbourhood and the chaos of vehicles that rushed by.  The beggar asked the little boy to help him sit on a little cemented bench outside a tiny butchery.  He needed some rest having walked for quite a long while.  His legs ached and he almost felt like telling the little boy that he could no longer walk but the thought of the ten rupees urged him on.  He knew a beggar could not be a chooser and after a short rest almost coerced himself to get up, with his hunger goading him on with the directionless search with the little boy in tow. 

Time and again the little boy would call out to his puppy, “Tommy...Tommy…tchu..tchu...Tommy...” making soothing and reassuring sounds for his pet to hear.  He seemed relentless in his search, now almost dragging the old beggar along who was near collapse with fatigue in the ungainly heat and exhaustion of the never ending search.  Soon they found themselves outside a small park with its wrought iron gates partially open, the beggar knew of the park, it was a den for rowdy elements at night. He hesitated to go in, but the boy pulled him through the grilled gates and they entered its dark recesses before the beggar could voice his protest.  It was deserted and the place had an eerie look. A few street-lamps were surprisingly lit to give it a semblance of decency, the well-worn slides and see-saw for children lay bare and desolate in the quietude under a starry night sky.  The beggar knew of a scattering of wooden benches around, which during the mornings would remain occupied by a few elderly pensioners who went there to take their morning walks. 

He was desperate to sit again, the little boy continued shouting out for his puppy, his voice almost echoing in the hallowed silence.  Then suddenly he tugged at the beggar’s hand excitedly, “I can hear a whimpering sound, I think it’s my Tommy,” so saying he hurriedly pulled the old man along towards the rear corner of the park.  As they neared it, the beggar made out a cluster of trees which stood nodding their heads in the cloistered shadows just beside the boundary walls, they seemed more like silent sentinels guarding the murky darkness of the precincts. 

“Are you sure..?” The beggar asked, for he heard nothing.
“Oh yes... yes...” so saying he tugged almost violently at the old man’s hands.
“Slowly, little boy I will fall and I cannot go so fast,” the beggar was now panting, almost gasping for breath, his lungs palpitating from the effort.

Suddenly the little boy gave a yelp and ran towards a small opening near the walls of the park, the beggar stood leaning heavily against his walking stick, a little unsteady, trying to catch his breath and make sense of it all.  In a minute the boy came back with a white bundle in his arms, he had found his poodle and was clearly happy as was the puppy licking the face of his benefactor.  The old beggar tried to make out the shadowy togetherness, glad that the boy had accomplished his task, as he gloated over their gibberish joyous reunion.
“You must tell your puppy to not leave you like this,” the beggar plodded playfully his voice shaking and sounding enormously relieved. 
“No, he has already promised that,” the boy replied happily.

Then together they trudged back to the street corner from where they had come, the little boy bantering endlessly all the while about his puppy. It was a painfully long walk for the old beggar who seemed so limp more with every step but the little boy was happy to find his puppy never felt any fatigue. He just held on to the beggar’s hand, while he cradled the tiny dog with his other.
Having reached the street corner, the boy helped the beggar sit on the pavement and immediately pulled out the money from his pocket and put it in the beggar’s palms, “I told you that I will give you the money, so here it is,” so saying he gave a toothy smile.  The beggar’s fingers reluctantly closed over the money but he suddenly felt a strange disinclination to take it, having pondered over it for a long minute he handed the coins back to the boy.

 “I will not take this,” so saying, he kind of looked away.
“Why... I had promised to give this,” the boy looked surprised.
“You are like my grandchild… I mean if I had one he would perhaps be like you.  How can I take money from a small boy for a little help?”
“But you are so poor and it does not matter, you can buy some food with it,” the boy urged on.
“I have money to buy food, please take this back,” the beggar lied not sure if he sounded very convincing.
The little boy looked at him with a strange expression, then said, “Alright... if you say so. And thank you for helping me,” the boy smiled.
“It was my duty little boy, and now you run along home, your parents must be worried sick.”
“I will come back to see you. You sit here often, do you...?”

“Yes... everyday!” Saying he felt happy that someone was concerned about his whereabouts.  No one had really cared to ask him such a question in a long time.  He felt a radiating peace within upon hearing the words. Under the street lights, the beggar could barely make out the outlines of the boy’s face but felt he looked quite innocent. He thought about asking his name but found the boy hurriedly tracing his steps across the street, holding his treasured possession close to his chest.
“Careful, as you cross the road,” the beggar’s voice trailed behind, and was soon drowned in the din of chaotic traffic and he was not sure if the boy heard him.

He felt completely exhausted and drained, his bones aching he lay down on his mat, once again fingering his bundle, felt reassured that the tobacco-seller had not forgotten to keep an eye.  Then he drifted into an uneasy slumber – it was more from exhaustion than anything else.  He did not know how long he slept but his squelching stomach rudely nudged him awake.  The night had worn further and traffic on Royd Steet was discernibly thinner as were the sounds, which seemed a trifle more bearable and the beggar groggily sat up and felt for his bowl.  It seemed to have some coins for he could hear the jingle of coins in the bowl as he shook it gently.  He pulled it closer and could make out quite a few coins inside it, he was stupefied, at the sudden bounty.  Had the passers-by turned kindly. Did the windfall happen while he slept or was it when he was away with the boy, he could not fathom, for after returning he was too tired to check his bowl, which was an old habit, common with most beggars.  He tried to gauge the denomination of his coins against the feeble lights illuminating the street, feeling them one at a time with his trembling fingers. They were almost a handful, and not being unable to decipher the total count after a couple of tries, he called out to the tobacco seller to help; the man was just preparing to leave for the day.

“Could you kindly count the coins I have? Think it is enough to buy dinner,” the beggar asked his voice quivering with glee, his salivary glands wetting his appetite even further. The tobacco vendor took the bowl and slowly counted the coins in it, then looked up and said, “Exactly, nine rupees and fifty paisa,” he paused to think for a few moments, then reached for the cloth pouch which he kept tied to his waist. He took out a coin from it and dropped it in the bowl with a tinkering sound, “Here is another fifty paisa.  So you now have ten rupees.  Enough to buy you some chapattis and curry for the night,” so saying he handed the bowl back to the old beggar and melted into the night. 
The old beggar peered unseeingly into his bowl and then looked up gratefully towards the skies, a lone tear rolling down the hollowed expanse of his weather-worn cheeks.  The heavens had heeded to him and he suddenly felt good having refused to take the little boy’s money. After ages he felt a sense of satisfaction, an inner glow – a pride he had long let go.  Then he eagerly gathered his frugal belongings and leaning heavily against his walking stick slowly limped towards a little eatery he knew of at a distance.  He mind drifted to the little boy and his puppy, as he shuffled on clasping his ragged little bundle tightly under his arms. He even mumbled a few words of gratitude to the boy and his puppy and sought blessings for them from Allah, his footsteps echoing upon the pavements and following his ragged his shadow into the darkness of night.

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