He was easily the happiest beggar I have ever seen. A youngish man of less than average height, he walked with a curious shuffling gait, his spine skewed to one side, as if some enormous gravitational pull had forced him off-centre. His hair was matted and his beard unkempt. He was dumb and all he could say was "ya-ya", a phrase he repeated as he shuffled along. All the children called him "Ya-Ya". He always had a smile on his face and a look of such surpassing innocence that no housewife in the lane could resist. At each house, he received some food, a few coins or some item of clothing. He always accepted whatever was given to him with a grateful bob of his head and his favourite phrase, "ya-ya." It did not matter if you gave him 5 paise or 5 rupees. He appeared equally grateful for whatever was given him.
Such a far cry from other beggars who came around. There was for example, the old man who was dressed in what appeared to be strips of white cloth, torn from old dhotis. He sported a long, dirty white mane and beard and had some sort of strappy sandals on his feet. He walked with the aid of a stout stick, which had grown smooth from long use. We christened him the Biblical Beggar, since he looked like a prophet out of an Old Testament movie, like the Ten Commandments. This old man was grumpy and could wave his stick threateningly when we children made fun of him. He was often seen muttering to himself and had a strange gleam in his eye.
Or, the gypsy women with their pothlis and voluminous garments. Invariably young and able bodied, they appeared to have a child permanently affixed to one hip. They generally travelled in twos and maneuvered like fast frigates. Beady eyes darting, they would quickly enter our little galli and scan the area. Any chickens grazing unsuspectingly in the yard were fair game. In a single swoop, they would grab the bird, cutting off its squawk with a twist of the neck, and it would disappear into the various folds of their garments which seemed designed for just such an eventuality. Not surprisingly, they were known as "murgi-chors" and were the least welcome among the lot.
Today, beggars have virtually disappeared from our colonies and lanes. Preferring instead to hang around traffic intersections and temples, they are an incredible collection of the flotsam and jetsam of life. Like the beggars of old, they too have their "uniforms". You have the disabled - some genuinely and many just practicing hobbling around on a crutch. Others have elaborate bandages tied on their heads or limbs, with a bright scarlet stain supposed to be blood. No one has told these innocents that blood turns brown after a while. The women all carry a babe in arms and a feeding bottle obviously picked out of the trash, since it has not seen either milk or water for at least a year or so. Come Saturday, and all these beggars become religious. They are all carrying a little metal can with some kum-kum smeared on it and collecting money for Shanidev!
Amazingly, tender hearted passersby still feel sorry for these beggars and pay out a whopping Rs 2 billion a year in Mumbai and Rs 1.5 billion in Delhi to them. That's about $50 million in Mumbai and $35 million in Delhi! No wonder, I read recently, that several graduates have taken up part-time begging to supplement their incomes! It seems, in the land where the Buddha gave the begging bowl respectability, no one is above trying his hand at being a bhikshu.
But, I digress. This story was really about my friend ya-ya. I had left Hyderabad and gone to Madras to college. On one of my infrequent trips back to the city of my birth, I had accompanied my father to Monda market, the place with the freshest vegetables in the twin cities. We wedged our old Fiat in, between a lorry carrying produce and a hand cart, and went shopping. On our return, dad was trying to back the car out of this slot in the face of the throng of pedestrians, cycle rickshaws and cattle, when a helpful chap stopped the traffic and enabled us to reverse. Turning to see who was commanding the traffic, I got the shock of my life. It was Ya-Ya - standing straight and tall, shooing people away with a deep baritone. His eyes met mine, and he knew in an instant, that the cover of a decade had been blown. With a sheepish grin he rushed away.
He never came back to our lane to beg. Ever.
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