When Iniyan unfolded the letter, he was at once convinced about its authenticity. The distinct handwriting of his grandfather stared him at his face. He subconsciously ran his fingers through the sheets as Suhasini looked over his shoulder and began to read what their granddad had to say:
‘My Dear Suhasini and Iniyan, I write this letter to you on a day when I have come to realize that my stay in this world won’t be for long. Of course, when you read this I shall be no more. That’s right kids- I am now officially talking to you from beyond this world.
I am sure you have found the extra money in the account even spookier than this letter. Not to worry- That is exactly what I intend to explain to you all through this letter. But in order for you to understand properly, i have to tell you a story- A real life incident that happened to me’
It was sometime around winter of ’93. I was working for the factory as you all know and plied through T Nagar ever day. I am sure you all remember the old Bullet that I used until my retirement. As always, the busy T.Nagar junction was clogged with Traffic even back then. The hawkers who used to occupy the sides of the road and shoppers, especially during festive times made life very hard for commuters. The biggest problem was the movement of people crisscrossing the busy junctions thus making it difficult to allow smooth flow of traffic during peak hours. It was during one such Traffic clogged evening while coming back from work that I spotted him first. A young boy, probably ten years old wearing only torn khaki trousers was slowly weaving through the bikes and cars on the road. It was clear that he was begging. As you all know I never gave money to beggars and on that day too I shooed that boy off when he came near me. But there was a hesitation in the manner in which he was begging. It looked like he was a disinterested beggar. Either he wasn’t too good at acting or he really did not enjoy asking for money. I saw him at the same signal in the days to come and I kept refusing him every day but his image kept bothering me. On the fourth day, as he came up to me, a thought struck me. I called him closer. His face brightened up as he came near me, hands folded but with a sprint in his legs.
’Why are you begging? I asked him.
He mumbled incoherently, touching his mouth and stomach with his hands.
‘Where are your parents?’ I asked
‘I have nobody’ he replied
‘Don’t lie. Where are they?’ I asked as other commuters eyed us suspiciously
‘My father was a drunkard’ he said ‘He left my mother, brother and me and ran away three years back’ he replied
‘Where is your mother?’ I asked
‘She is not well. She is lying down near the park’ he said, ‘that is where we live’ he added, gazing towards the Panagal Park across the road.
I couldn’t believe anything he said. But I did not confront him anymore because I realized it just did not matter. If a young boy of his age has been pushed into begging due to his circumstances, what chance did he have in the future to get out of this life and start fresh? Will he, after tasting the life of handouts ever want to go back in life to the concept of working and earning money for the work he puts in? I did not give him any money that day or the following few days as I saw him begging in the same spot.
By the end of the week however, my cynicism had somehow turned into an urge to do something. I finally made up my mind and believed I had nothing to lose from what I was about to do. So that evening, I eagerly drove towards the signal with a plan in my mind. I spotted him begging in the same spot as I gestured for him to come closer. He hesitated a little before walking towards me. He did not ask me for money but just stared blankly at me.
‘Why did you choose this signal to beg?’ I asked him as I lifted my helmet off my head and parked my bike at the side of the road. I was met with silence.
‘Did somebody force you to beg here?’ I asked suspiciously. He shook his head.
‘Can I tell you why you chose this signal?’ I continued ‘you very well knew that if there is one signal which is clogged with traffic due to peak hour rush it is this. So more traffic snarls means more chances of waiting motorists to give you money right?’ I asked.
I was again met with Silence.
‘How much money do you get by begging every day?’ I prodded
‘Fifty rupees’ he replied finally.
I suspected him to probably earn more than that. Anyway, I told him that I would give him fifty rupees everyday if he would do something for me. His face brightened immediately and nodded. I told him that since he had been taking advantage of the notorious traffic snarls in and around that particular road junction, all he had to do was to contribute in a constructive manner in easing the traffic everyday during peak hours.
He looked at me, confusion ridden all over his face.
‘To simply put it, all you have to try and do is to deter as many pedestrians from crossing the road indiscriminately when the signal was green for the traffic to move’ I explained.
‘And also, I would love to see you restrict vehicles from spilling over to opposite lanes in the hope of dashing ahead towards the signal while subsequently blocking oncoming traffic.’ I added with excitement.
The brief did nothing to lift his spirits as he looked confused and disheartened at the very thought of the herculean task that I had given him and only shook his head half heartedly when I promised to give him the money if he did what I asked him to do dedicatedly everyday between 5:30 pm and 7:00 pm in the evenings. I also told him that he was free to beg at other times of the day.
I did not expect anything when I drove towards the signal the next day. As expected, the traffic was vicious as pedestrians crossed with scant regard for the signal. I saw him close to the zebra crossing just staring at the people and vehicles around him. He wasn’t doing what I asked him to and so when he caught site of me waiting in the chaotic traffic I simply stared at him and moved on. I did not call him closer and neither did he approach me. He seemed helpless as he watched the traffic inch slowly through the dense sea of jaywalkers on the road. The lanes were also blocked half way with vehicles from the opposite direction as usual. Nothing was different that day except for one minor yet significant detail. The boy did not beg for the full ten minutes it took me to cross the signal.
The same routine continued for the next few days as he looked lost every evening. I sensed a feeling of reluctance in his face as he stood on the side of the road, keenly observing the traffic and its various malfunctioning components but yet unwilling to take a first step towards his task. I knew it was time to find out his problem and give him a push.
He saw me as I parked my bike near the signal one evening but instead of walking up to him I crossed the road and headed towards the traffic constables booth. The constable on duty was known to me through the factory sources and as I told him of the assignment I had given the young boy, I pointed across the road to where he was standing.
‘Yes, I have seen him begging in this area’ the constable growled
‘I just want him to know that he has nothing to fear from you and perhaps he has your backing too?’ I ventured
‘How can we trust him?’ the constable asked suspiciously
‘Do you honestly think he can make the situation worse from what it already is?’ I asked
The constable shrugged,’ Ok, let us try for a few days. But I honestly think a beggar will always be a beggar. They never change Raja Sir’ he smiled
‘I have nothing to lose by trying to help him, but I certainly have a lot to gain along with many commuters if he even succeeds marginally’ I said looking around at the chaos on the road!