Author: Aparna Sanyal
Location: Montreal, Canada
Aparna Sanyal lives in Montreal, where she works as a freelance writer and nonprofit jack-of-all-trades. Her work has been published in the Montreal Gazette,
the Montreal Review of Books, Rover Arts Online,
Her short fiction will appear in an upcoming issue of the River Oak Review.
The Nine Hundred and Ninety-Ninth Beggar
It was in West Bengal, a few years ago. I was traveling, having just completed my undergraduate degree. India, of course, is home to legions of beggars — beggars of genius, beggars whose brilliance is the product not of decades, but millennia, of collective strategy, beggars whose beggary is beggared by description. She was the nine hundred and ninety-ninth beggar — which is simply to say I had lost count.
I’d left the din of Kolkata (where my great-uncle lived) for Shantiniketan, a tranquil university town just a couple of hours away. There I hoarded my pennies for a few weeks, planning a final trip to a hill station down South. I was to leave in a week and had just finished the arduous process of cashing my last American Express travelers cheques. It was always a terrible time, counting the rupees, then finding some inconspicuous way of carrying the foot-thick wad back home.
I was stuffing it into my already full backpack, when I caught a glance of her outside the bank. She was sitting alone on the marble barrier, a small white-haired lady, about sixty-five, in a white sari. Her hair was bound in a bun, and though her sari was much the worse for wear, it was clean and neatly worn. Her hands lay in her lap, and her shoulders were a little hunched. Beggars were never in this part of town, so she looked as though she were waiting for someone. But as I passed her, she spoke quietly.
“Ektu paisa deben?” Would you give me a little money?
I was still holding the end of my packet of rupees. Her clear eyes looked into mine as I pushed the wad further into my bag.
“Paisa nei,” I muttered, averting my gaze. I got onto my bike.
Over the next few hours, I thought of her periodically. Something about her perturbed me. For one thing, she had not held out her hand. For another, she had not physically approached me. And she had no story, no dying children, no diseased husband. Her tone of voice was the most peculiar of all. It was direct and strong, though quiet. She was present in her voice, as though she believed that, if she simply asked, she would receive.
In the late afternoon, I put three thousand rupees in my backpack and set off to buy my air-conditioned, first-class ticket to Madras. It was a lovely November dusk, and I biked slowly past the deserted football field. During the day the path is thick with students, but now it was empty — except for one small white figure, sitting on a concrete slab. I stopped in surprise beside her.
“Aapni, bank-er pashay chilen?” I asked her, instinctively using the polite form of address.
And instinctively she replied "Yes," with an elder’s authority. With a surge of satisfaction, I remembered that I had thirty rupees in my pocket. I dug into it, and handed them to her.
A smile lit my face before I had lifted it to hers, a benefactor’s smile, the smile of a girl who opens a door for a person burdened with too many boxes. O these little difficulties!
As she took the money, I saw on her face a crushing disappointment. She was quick to conceal it, however, and thanked me, as an elder thanks a child.
I climbed on my bike and rode away. But again she disturbed me. I struggled with the expression on her face as she accepted the money. First, the face was a very beautiful one. It was a face with a history. Not a history of events, necessarily, but a history of reflection. It was easy to imagine her as the grandmother of a dozen children who has passed through flood and fire and emerged intact, children tied to her back, honoured. Of course, she might just as easily have been single all her life; it wouldn’t have made a difference. There was an integrity about the face that hurt. In an Indian fable, she would have been a god in disguise.
Suppose, with the poetic instincts of the solitary, the heroic, the despairing, she had wound her way to the side of the football field to rest, to reflect — for it was a peculiar choice, deserted and yet so open. Suppose she wanted to be out of the human glare which you, or I, or anyone must feel in begging when begging is not one’s trade. Suppose — like a bird flies at twilight to the topmost branch of the tree &mdash suppose that is why she had come there.
Imagine it. Amid the lonely silence, a single person comes along, a person solitary like yourself, a person you have seen before, a monied young girl, who has no more reason to be there than you. Suppose the circumstances are such that with one small gesture this person might save you from whatever it is that has driven you to beg. Suppose, on top of that, this person — who had seemed to see right through you — stops beside you, exclaims over you, recognizes you? Wouldn’t you, for a moment, be deceived? Would you not imagine that God had spotted you?
And then, to be treated as a mere beggar, whose happiness may be bought for thirty rupees!
It might have all turned out differently. I might, in addition to planning for weeks for my holiday, been planning my whole life in expectation of the nine hundred and ninety-ninth beggar. I might have guessed, right away, why she sat there beside the deserted field. Instead of looking for spare change, I might have thrown my bag at her and run, remembering the three thousand rupees, as though to say, My whole life is spare change, grandmother. Take it.
It didn’t happen that way. At the station I turned around, determined to find her. The field was empty, the pathway dark and deserted. “Dida!” I called. A disheartening silence replied. I went through the entire town, until the streets were empty. “Dida!” I called again and again, clutching a wad of rupees in my outstretched hand. I grew dusty and hoarse. On the way back, I sat down in exhaustion on the marble barrier beside the bank. My heart filled with anguish every time I thought of the three thousand rupees. What wouldn’t I have given now, to find the old beggar?
A couple of drunkards wandering home stared at me as at an apparition. But the old lady was nowhere to be found.