My pocket had been picked and for the last seven hours I had been at the mercy of the elements. Chennai had many to offer, especially if you were somebody like me – good looking, innocent and with a heart that beat for the others.
With darkness engulfing the city, if you could call it one, I needed a place to settle. I had my plans laid out. With whatever little money I was left with, I called up my mother and she had promised to send money to the nearby post office and I was to collect it from the Postmaster.
I was at peace with myself. With an assurance of a better tomorrow, a place to stay for the night was all I asked for but I did not know that Chennai had this habit of testing its visitors before obliging with their requests. Nice city, I have to agree and I have my reasons too.
There are times in everyone`s life when one realizes the importance of coins – the ones that in periods of affluence are ignored and just carried about, without being used for the fear of being considered cheap. Had I not been mean to small change, I would have spent the night inside the Railway station. A platform ticket worth three rupees was all I needed to buy and I could have spent a night under the fan, with a loo to back up my bladder, which believed that I was a beer guzzler and hence reported for duty at regular intervals.
With no small change on me, I had to settle down on a long, raised platform built for the pedestrians entering the station. Luckily for me, Chennai has a tropical climate and the month of April is hotter than the other eleven. Even as I gazed at the clouds parting, just so I could catch a glimpse of the stars, I knew that I was safe – at least from the cold. The mosquitoes did not matter. We had them in Madurai and I had seen all kinds.
I would never have grown fond of Chennai, had it not been for the policeman on patrol, though he is not the real protagonist of this narration. As I settled down on the pavement, this policeman walked up to me and enquired, “I see that you are new here?”
It was then I noticed that many like me were scattered all around. For a moment I thought there were too many pocket pickers in Chennai but then reality dawned. There were about a dozen of them and in the moonlight I could see bliss on their face. Once I realized that they were at peace with themselves and the world, I knew it. I knew that they were all beggars and for a day, I would be one among them.
“Yes, sir. Somebody picked my pocket today afternoon and I am waiting for my mother to send me some money,” I said.
“You cannot spend the night here if you do not give me something, ” was the policeman`s curt reply.
Luckily, I happened to understand his need and offered him my wristwatch. I did not even get a chance to thank the policeman as he looked around and grabbed my payment and walked away into the darkness. Later when I was thinking about it, I shuddered at the thought of picking up a fight with the policeman and waking up all those blessed with celestial bliss.
As I was reveling in my unaccustomed leisure, I felt a hand on my shoulder. But for the moonlight, I would not have seen his face and would have screamed. Just that he was he was ugly and scary.
“I saw you giving your wrist watch to the policeman. Had you told me earlier, I would have told the cop that you were my relative from across the city,” said the beggar with a voice that seemed to be coming from his stomach – after a lot of struggle.
With the ice broken, we exchanged pleasantries and then got back to serious conversation. He gave me his word that he was not a born beggar. He also added, “I am not into this because I like it. You should try to understand that I was rich enough for my ignorance of certain things to be branded eccentricity.”
This aroused my curiosity. Whoever said, curiosity killed the cat was wrong because I got my story and lived to tell it. Here is his story, in pretty much the same words he used.
About twenty years back, I was a small time clerk at the Chennai Employment Exchange. When I say small, it does not really mean small because every action of mine decided the future of the unemployed of the city. I know it is hard to believe when a beggar says so, but that`s the truth.
Had it not been for this distant aunt of mine, I would still have been working there, probably waiting for my retirement. For reasons unknown to her close relatives and me, my name figured in her will and overnight I was a rich man. She had left me a tea-estate in the Nilgiris.
Now, I am not somebody who ever was interested in another`s wealth. You might ask me, why I beg in that case, but believe me, even today when I spread my palms for a rupee to be dropped, my heart aches. Hence, I refused to accept her legal declaration that I should get the tea-estate. But what can a man do when the whole World gangs up against you. I was forced into accepting the inheritance, but not before I made it very clear to all those involved that I was doing so only because my aunt wanted me to.
With the riches, I also gained some self-esteem and as a result I could not make it to the Chennai Employment Exchange everyday. I shifted to the palatial house in Nilgiris, where my aunt wanted me to stay while I took care of her tea-estate. Life was never so easy. I had everything I wanted, except for good friends.
Many would come by, but I knew they were getting closer just so they could have a piece of my wealth. Every good word they spoke, felt like a vehicle they were using to reach out and touch my heart. Every good deed of theirs felt like an effort to make it to my will. Now, don`t think I was imagining things, keep listening.
Over a period of time, I fell out with all my close friends. They said the riches had made me arrogant and stiff-necked. I did not care for I knew friends would come and go.
Even before I knew, more than a decade transpired and the royalty of money started waning. I had spent thirteen years all alone managing a tea-estate. There were people around me, the ones that plucked the tealeaves and the ones that packed them, but we never had any intelligent conversation. Since, they considered me one rung above, it was a lonely existence.
I tried to get into wedlock by advertising in the papers but did not get any proposals. There is something I want to tell you about this newspaper agent – he was very incoherent. When I gave him my photograph, which I wanted him to publish as a part of the matrimonial advertisement, he suggested that I don`t use the photograph. When enquired, he could not come up with a satisfactory answer.
Anyways, as I was saying, I did not get any proposals.
With nobody to share my thoughts I was annoyed with myself. Soliloquies became an everyday feature but even then, I had nothing to talk about. Though I was blessed with the means and the urge to do so many things, I could not. And this weighed me down. I realized that I just existed. So much so, there were times when I was made to think that this aunt of mine had an enmity with our family and this was her revenge.
I was losing my balance, and life no longer was the sweet pie, it used to be. Call it stupidity, but all of a sudden, I had realized the importance of friends. I knew I had been a scoundrel. Being a Libran, I always believed in evening out things, and I decided to go about it as soon as possible. After a lot of trouble, which then made me feel good, I got the addresses of five of my best friends of yesteryears. The easy part was selling my whole property, the house included and convert it into cash.
I intended to distribute my wealth equally amongst my friends and then commit suicide. I was so determined that in a week`s time, I had made all arrangements. Incidentally, the day happened to be the 8th of June – the best friend`s day.
I did not want my friends to have any complications after my death; hence, I mailed them their share in cash and settled down to business. I had already bought a bottle of rat poison that the local chemist had suggested. You being one of those young types might think that I am bluffing my way into your heart, but no sire, that`s not what I am.
After some whiskey, which I agree I needed to calm down my nerves, I drank the poison. Yes, the whole bottle. I don`t exactly remember anything after that, not because I was in a coma or something but everything happened so fast. I survived the suicide attempt, and was admitted in the hospital. When the hospital authorities enquired about my relatives, I told them that I had none and they could contact my friends for anything. After all, I had made amends. You would be surprised to know that nobody came to see me during my four day stay in the hospital.
As you may remember, I had sold everything that I could call my own in a bid to help my friends. As a result, when I was discharged, I landed up on this pavement. If you are curious to know how I paid the hospital fees, I gave them my wristwatch.