by fire, huddled in a thatched shed with no escape route and no one to save them cannot be forgotten. Nor forgiven. It was alright for Joseph Stalin to say, “The death of one person is a tragedy. But the death of a million is statistics.” To Stalin it may be true because he had liquidated ,by his own dictate, a million and half of his own people. We think differently.
51) They live on Alms
I am tempted to write about beggars I have come across. They all are different from each other.
Why are they poor and driven to the necessity of living on alms reluctantly given by an indifferent society? Why do the rich and the affluent shun beggars? These questions can only be answered partly because there is a wide variety of opinion among the general public concerning beggars and begging. Even God who claims to love all his creation as is stated in the scriptures appears to be unmindful of the hungry, the sick, the half-clad and homeless humanity.
Once I watched a woman leper on the TV screen. She had a hole in her right cheek. Her eyes were sunken and sad, her hair unkempt. She was singing a song taught her in a catholic rescue home in Bombay. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”, was the song. It was pathetic to hear such a beautiful chorus from the mouth of a disfigured destitute leper woman even though she had a ‘home’ to stay and was looked after. Perhaps that was the way God showed His love for her; through the catholic charity. But why, why at all, is a vast majority of the poor driven to the ignoble status of begging for food?
I can describe a few of them. To make the narrative realistic, I have given them some fictitious names because I do not know their real names. I have never asked their names; who does?
Susaiappan, Susai for short, was a young man in his early twenties, clad only in a piece of loin cloth, dark in complexion, shiny hairless body and a scanty beard. He showed a mouthful of smile to hide his hunger. Almost every fortnight we could expect him to appear at our house in Ramnad and asked to see my mother to whom he appealed for food. Besides feeding him she listened patiently to his sad plight, rejection by his family and stories of adventure as a mendicant. He did not relish stable jobs and never took one. But he would do odd jobs that came on his way if food was promised. We asked him to cut firewood which he did slowly, hoping that food arrived soon and cut short his labour.
His days were spent, he said, walking along the sea shore from Kanyakumari to Velankani and back. He did not know why he did this solitary trekking along the sandy beach, wetting his feet in salt water, slow, on bare-feet, hungry and aimless. But, he said, he enjoyed his walk. On the way he was fed by people in exchange for odd jobs. But most of the time he starved and went hungry. He knew the geography of this coast and the fishing villages.
He was a friendly beggar who knew us by our names and chatted with us as if we were his friends. We were school children then, back in 1930s. One day he bade us good bye as he did every time he visited us, and left, never to be seen again. All he left behind was his memory, poor Susai.
Nilakantan was an English educated middle-aged man living on charity. He also composed couplets in English and Tamil. He scribbled his verses with black charcoal on white lime-washed walls of Ramnad. He was a poet in his own rights. Some of his verses were pleasant to read, some abusive or