"Fithe moo twada (May your faces tear apart)," screamed the semi-clad, shrivelled woman in Punjabi at the bunch of urchins giggling at her. She picked up a handful of pebbles and flung them at the pranksters. Her tormenters continued to jeer her. The sobbing woman was frothing at the mouth and shouted, "Kidhe lag javan twanu (May the worms eat you)".
We were watching this drama from a tonga in 1942 as we returned home to Tandaliawala for the holidays from our college in Lahore. "Who is she?" I asked Abdul, who rode the tonga. "She is a mad bikharan (beggar woman). Nobody knows where she's come from. She does not wear proper clothes and loafs all over town. She is homeless and sleeps anywhere on the street. If somebody gives her food she eats else she just starves," he told us.
The condition of the woman pricked our conscience. My friends and I were revolted by this daily mockery of the hapless woman. Therefore, we spoke to Lala Chand, who owned a tea shop. He agreed to feed the woman bread, biscuits and tea for which we would pay him weekly. It worked. Whenever she was hungry, she hung around Lalaji's tea shop.
Next we tried to get her clothed. We sent her shawls and bedsheets, so that she could wrap herself and also sleep on some sheets on the ground. The bikharan tore them to shreds. She had no use for them.
We sought the help of Bindya, the maid at home. We assigned her the task of tutoring the bikharan on wearing clothes. Where an entire town had only jeered at the woman, Bindya succeeded in restoring her her dignity.
Then, nature took over.
In the 1940s, there were no tape-recorders or music downloads. A few affluent families owned a gramophone on which records could be played. The most popular singer was KL Saigal, whose romantic songs mesmerised an entire generation. The bikharan always hovered around the gramophone when it was played in our neighbour's courtyard.
Then we made a discovery. She had a sonorous voice and could sing beautifully. Soon she was delighting people in the streets with her renderings of Saigal's favourite songs. Her street audience showered her with coins as a gift of appreciation. With great poignancy she would sing 'Jab dil hi toot gaya, ham jeekay kya karenge" (What is the use of living when my heart is broken?)."
She was not taunted any more. Instead, she was referred to as "Allah-rakhi", somebody who is cared for by the Almighty.
A year later when I returned home, I did not find her anywhere. Nobody could tell me what had happened to her. "One night she was there and the next morning she wasn't," said Bindya. I wondered what had happened to her. Quite simply, she disappeared.
Nevertheless, the metamorphosis of the semi-clad bikharan to an economically independent street singer has always remained engraved in my mind.
So 71 years later, when I see beggars at traffic signals or outside temples, I wonder why we don't teach them the value of self respect and the importance of making a living through a skill one has.