November 30, 2014 4 Comments
29th Nov 14
Today was one of the two mandatory days in a week for me to a session at the gym, part of a regimen prescribed by the docs in cardiac rehab. Going to the dentist to pull out a rotten tooth is any day a far pleasanter prospect, I thought.
As I was retrieving my track-suit from the cupboard, on a chance, I looked out of the window and spotted the old man settling down on the pavement just outside our gate. From the folds of his clothes he pulled out a small cloth pouch. I couldn’t see what he was doing with it.
Just then the watchman of the building across the street about fifteen feet away shouted:
‘What are you eating?’
The old man waved a sache at him.
‘Tambakoo? Who gave it to you?’
‘No one. I bought it from my own money. Five rupees it cost me.’
As I moved away from the window, I heard the watchman call him ‘bewda’ (a drunkard) – didn’t know what was the provocation – and receive a mouthful from the old man. Whatever else he might be, he is certainly not a ‘bewda’ as far as I could see.
Not an infrequent scene – these days I find youngsters passing by, tradesmen, courier boys, all taunting him for no apparent reason and the old man responding vigorously.
Meanwhile, my wife from the other room wanted to know why it was taking so long for me to get ready for the gym. Was I planning to skip the work–out?
I assured her the thought had not entered my mind and proceeded to share with her what I saw and heard from up here.
She already had it mapped out: ‘I told you time and again never to give money to these folks. You give him money and see what he does with it. If you feel like giving, give him something to eat.’
I know from first hand they prefer to receive cash that lets them buy food of their choice.’
For some months now, the old man, is a regular, squatting at a spot near the head of the street for a good part of the day. It is one of those places in his daily rounds he is likely to receive food.
Must be well into seventies, short and lightly built, dark complexioned, skin in wrinkles all over like a shrunken fruit, a face permanently set in a grouch, very live eyes narrowed by thick folds of skin, straight-backed though his neck bending forward a bit, clothed in traditional dhoti and shirt crumpled and a little untidy but without tear , trudging along with his thick stick, his chappals scuffing the tar underneath – this’s him. And top it with a booming voice that lied about his age.
Early on, he appeared to be a little more cheerful than what he is now. That’s when I ventured to ask him some personal questions without the fear of disagreeably receiving his stick. He told me he has a wife and a daughter living in the same area. They don’t take care of him, so he is on his own. I tried to counsel him softly it is unwise of him at his age to stay away from his blood relations. Of course I didn’t seriously expect him to change on my say-so and he didn’t. I left it at that.
Whenever I see him on my way to the market – that would be twice or thrice in a week – I give him ten rupees. Eases my guilt a wee bit. It started out as twenty rupees but cut back to ten once I added a few more guys to the list. Clutching the ten-rupee note, for a moment his sunken cheeks puff out in a hint of a child-like happy expression, closest to a smile – a sight firmly etched in my mind.
Resuming the narrative: As I hit the street heading for the gym, I saw him ahead of me plodding along tapping his heavy stick. In minutes I surprised him from behind and thrust his due that he has come to expect. This time, I broke my stride and asked him:
‘So you take tambakoo from the money you collect, eh?’
Tambakoo (raw tobacco leaves supplemented with god–knows–what is leisurely chewed especially among the poor) is identified as the chief cause for contracting oral cancer.
‘No sahib, with the money you give, I buy myself vada–pav (an inexpensive local burger–like snack) at the stall near the post-office. He gives me an extra pav (bread loaf), you know.’
He saw me waiting still for an explanation for chewing tambakoo.
‘Sahib, I know what you’re getting at. But that’s the only way to control my hunger for a few hours till I get something to eat.’
I moved on.
I wish I had not spoken to him.