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 engulffing 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 Post master.
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 didnot 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 realises 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 3 ruppees 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 – atleast from the cold. The musquitos 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 upto 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 realised that they were at peace with themselves and the world, I knew it. I knew that they were all beggers 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 wrist watch. 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 tried to get into wed-lock 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.”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 begger with a voice that seemed to be coming from his stomach – after a lot of struggle.
With the ice broken, we exchanged pleasentries and then got back to serious conversation. He gave me his word that he was not a born begger. He also added, “I am not into this because I like it. You should try to understand that I was rich enough for my ignorace 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 doesnot 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 begger 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 me and her close relatives, 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 ruppee 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 Employemnt 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. But then, I did not care for I knew, friends 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 tea-leaves 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 wed-lock 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 realised that I was just existing. So much so, there were times when I was made to think that this aunt of mine had an enimity 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 realised 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. Incidently, 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. Afterall, 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 everthing 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 wrist watch.