The boy was skinny for his age, but his lucid, wistful eyes belied his scrawny appearance and made him look much older.
That very morning, he’d alighted on the decrepit platform of Jolarpettai station, simply because he was tired of crouching beside the smelly toilet in the unreserved coach of the Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari express for the past two days. He had then spent the day roaming the streets of the town, surviving on scraps of food flung at him by some kindred soul from the kitchens of a run-down eatery, drinking brackish water from public taps and dozing under the awning of a shuttered shop. The blazing sun smote upon him until he awoke hungry and parched. Picking himself up, he tried his luck finding a job at a few shops nearby in vain. He was barefoot, dressed in tatters and smelt. More importantly, he wasn’t one of them and didn’t speak their tongue. Then what hope did he have of finding a job?
As dusk fell, the blazing sun mellowed just enough for a gentle breeze to dry his sweat off. He somehow sensed a shift in the air and followed a steady bustle of people headed to the Amman temple, where celebrations were on for the holy month of chithirai.
The narrow street, chock-a-block with shops selling everything from salt to smart phones, was buzzing with fervent activity. The place was heaving with devotees who had flocked to pay obeisance to the formidable, demanding and often angry Goddess, who could unleash her fury upon them if ignored for too long. People laughed, shouted, ate masala vadais, bondas, jalebis and drank colourful, sugary drinks. The steam rising from the cooking oil made the very air warm and oppressive. Adding to the heady mix was the fragrance of incense and flowers from within the temple. The boy heard his stomach protest in hunger. The frenetic temple musicians and drummers filled the air with their raucous cacophony. The freshly-painted temple gopura was bedecked in a million blinking colourful lights. Above him, in the sky, a firework exploded, showering multi-coloured flames across the stars. He was awe-struck, completely mesmerised by the sights and sounds all around.
Drawn, as if, by an invisible force, he drifted towards the temple gates.
Perched on his rickety stool, Murugesan watched the vagrant from his tiny shop that sold coconuts and pooja thalis to devotees. It had been a busy day. He’d emptied three sacks of coconut in a matter of hours. He’d sent his son to the market nearby to restock. He was taking a break, sipping on a cup of tea, when he spotted him. He frowned.
“ Aye Thangamma!” He called out to the lady selling flowers from the shop nearby. “Watch out for that urchin. He’s headed your way.”
Thangamma peered at him from between the rows of jasmine and marigold garlands that hung from her shop, like a thick flowery veil.
“What a pathetic looking creature.” She spat out a blob of paan and handed over some change to her customer.
The boy walked up to the flower seller and used the universal sign language to gesture for food. He babbled in a language unknown in those parts. Thangamma sniggered.
“He looks like the wily kind. Show pity on them and they’ll slit your throats while you sleep and take off with your money. Wonder where they come from!” Thangamma spat again, this time aiming in the boy’s direction.
The boy ambled over to the sweetmeat stall.
“You watch out boy! Subbu anna might empty a mug of scalding water over your head!” Murugesan called after him, mockingly.
He laughed aloud as he watched the pudgy Subbu anna roughly shove the boy.
The boy slunk away, disappearing into the folds of the thronging crowd.
The beggar walked with a limp, clinging to his walking stick, humming a tune in an off-key voice. Over his shoulder was slung a tattered dirty bag. He walked, rather slowly, unmindful of the swarming, near-delirious crowd around him. He settled onto his usual perch near an old tree stump, a few yards from the temple entrance. At leisure, he pulled out an old piece of cardboard carton box and spread it on the concrete. Having deposited his cane and bag, he proceeded to seat himself with great difficulty. He stretched out one leg and lifted up his dhoti just a little bit, so that his prosthetic leg was strategically revealed. It went a long way in earning the pity of a few charitable souls. He then put on his regular ‘have-some-pity-on-this-old-soul’ look on his face and it was business as usual for him.
A raucous bout of laughter from the flower seller was what alerted him to the presence of the urchin. How he hated that loud, foul-mouthed hag! He looked up to see a boy being shoved by the pot-bellied sweet seller. He watched him wander aimlessly around. He didn’t really care. He continued to bring out his usual paraphernalia from the confines of his bag – his alms bowl, a conch and a gong with a small wooden stick. When he looked up, the boy was nowhere to be seen. He scanned the crowds before spotting him by the stall that sold hot masala vadais. A sweaty man in a dirty waistcloth was busy scooping up delicious looking vadais from the simmering oil and dumping it into a cavernous iron cauldron by his side. The shop owner was busy on the other side attending to a crowd of vociferous, hungry customers. The boy was ogling at the vadais. The beggar noticed a strange glint in his eyes. He knew what was going to happen next and watched bemusedly as the boy slowly reached out to grab a few vadais on the sly.
“Hey!” The words were out of his mouth even before he could stop himself.
The boy hastily dropped his hand and turned towards him with a frightened look. He gestured for him to come over to him. Thankfully, no one had noticed the boy’s stealthy attempt.
He observed the boy through his rheumy eyes and decided he couldn’t be more than seven or eight. He could make out from his wheatish skin and light brown crop of unruly hair that he wasn’t from these parts.
The boy stood before him squirming.
“Paer enna thambi (what’s your name, boy?)” He asked in tamil.
He tried a few more questions and drew a blank for each one of them.
Ramanna sighed and gestured for the boy to sit down. The boy obliged.
“You were about to steal from that shop. You must be really hungry then. Here, have this.”
He handed him an over ripe squishy, blackened banana. The boy’s eyes lit up and he gobbled it in a jiffy. A trace of a smile appeared on his lips.
A brightly hued tourist bus arrived and disgorged its passengers. A motley group of devotees from some nearby town had arrived to show their fervent devotion and appease the Goddess, who otherwise might end up sending a plague upon them. Ramanna was suddenly all business-like, assuming a look of such misery that his bowl was filled up by the time the group walked passed them into the temple.
The boy watched with undisguised amazement as a group of frenzied devotees entered the temple, carrying dangerously blazing pots of dancing flames that singed and burned anyone who wasn’t quick enough to avoid them. A few others entered the temple accompanied by deafening drummers, swaying in an almost trance like state. A few slightly sophisticated, middle class devotees, evident from their discreet arrival went in, made their offerings and walked out, not wanting to linger amidst such a dramatic assault on well-heeled sensibilities.
As the festivities for the evening drew to a close and shops downed their shutters after a particularly rewarding day, the beggar gathered his paraphernalia and prepared to leave. The boy, who’d been silently crouching by his side all evening, stood up hesitantly.
Ramanna sniggered. “Of course, now you’ll want me to take you to my place, won’t you? Hmmm... come along then.” The boy followed him wordlessly.
Ramanna stopped at the shop selling vadais and bullied the owner to part with some leftovers.
As he stuffed the oily newspaper wrapped vadais into his sling bag, he gave the boy a lopsided grin, “Dinner, taken care of!”
He then led him to a shanty hut a few streets away. It wasn’t much – a flimsy structure made of corrugated metal sheets, hard boards and a wide assortment of debris. To the bone-weary, famished boy, it was a welcome relief to sit down on the cool mud floor and munch on masala vadais. A drink of water from an earthen pot completed his meal and made him feel almost content. The last thing he saw before sleep overpowered his tired limbs was Ramanna taking deep drags on his chillum, seated by the doorway, singing a song in a strange tongue that somehow reminded him of home, peace and happier times. His eyelids drooped. Tonight, he was too tired to grieve for the things he’d lost in life.
Ramanna looked around for a piece of cloth to cover the sleeping boy. Only there was none. The one blanket he had was in the other corner of the hut, serving as a makeshift bed for him. He retrieved it and swiftly ripped it into two. The worn-out fabric easily gave away. He covered the sleeping boy with the good half and kept the other tattered half for himself. He then went back to his perch by the doorway and the comfort of his chillum.
The hoarse cry of a rooster woke the boy up. He lazily opened an eye and took in his new surroundings. The squalid room didn’t look any better in the daylight. Through the open doorway, he saw Ramanna stripped down to his loin cloth busy with his morning ablutions. That was when he noticed the prosthetic leg. He noticed the piece of blanket that covered him. He realised that it was a piece from a bigger blanket ripped apart. He gently, almost respectfully, folded it and placed it in the corner.
A drink of tepid water from the earthen pot again and a quick wash later, he was tagging behind Ramanna, who was limping towards the temple, agitatedly.
“We’re late boy! Today’s the final day of the festivities. There’s going to be a huge turnout. Should have been there earlier,” he muttered.
The boy hurried after him.
The scene that unfolded outside the temple was the same as the previous day. Bells tolled, devotees thronged, hawkers yelled, horns trilled, children cried and mothers scolded.
Seeing a group of brightly clad women approach, Ramanna quickly lifted up his bowl and beseeched, “Amma, dharmam pannungaa! (Amma, please be charitable!)”
The boy decided to pitch in, with both palms upraised entreatingly. To his surprise, Ramanna gave him a rough shove and bellowed, “NO! You shall NOT beg!”
The startled women, moved away, looking alarmed.
“Look what you did, you fool!” Ramanna yelled.
The boy withered under his furious gaze.
“You think, I’m here to turn you into me? You think I’d be here begging if I had a choice?” His hand grazed his artificial leg.
“Come with me.”
The boy followed Ramanna to the shop that sold Masala vadais and bajjis. The shop owner glowered at Ramanna
“You again! No leftovers in the morning. Go now!”
“I’m not here for your soggy vadais, weren’t you looking for a young chap to assist your man in the kitchen? This boy here can wash, clean and chop. Have some pity and take him in, wont you? Just pay him what you will and give him your leftovers, that should do. The boy doesn’t speak our tongue, You are free to hurl your choicest abuses at him, he will not utter a word, I promise you.”
The shopkeeper looked at them for a long minute and then sighed.
“You better be right about the boy, old man, or I shall get your sorry ass kicked out of this town.”
Ramanna folded his hands in a gesture of thanks.
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. Didn’t I tell you he doesn’t speak Tamil? Call him whatever you want. I don’t care.”
An hour later, the boy was in the shop kitchen washing vessels, beside an older boy who winked and smirked at him, “Are you deaf, dumb or both?”
A week later, the boy pocketed the money that the shopkeeper gave him and grinned. The leftover vadais were tucked under his arm, wrapped in newspaper.
With a spring in his step he walked towards the beggar’s usual corner. He suddenly stopped. He had a stop to make. He badly needed some clean clothes. He spotted at a shop that sold some and walked over with the confidence of having a hundred rupee note tightly folded and tucked away in his trouser pocket. The woman in the shop looked at him questioningly. He pointed at the thing he wanted the most. She gestured. He gestured back at her. She shook her head and waved him away. He persisted, a lot. She gave in.
He walked over to the dozing Ramanna and tapped him lightly on his shoulder. Ramanna woke up, startled. He shyly handed over the package to the old man and watched him unwrap it with his callused fingers. Inside was a cheap blanket of cotton. When he looked up, his eyes were soft.
“Come and sit by me, boy.”
The boy spoke, haltingly, with the Tamil he’d picked from his new friend in the kitchen. “En paeru ... (My name is...)”