By Atin Dasgupta
Reaching the ticket counter at the Andheri West Railway Station (in downtown Bombay) on a day when a softie cone would melt faster than usual and after rubbing past half a dozen shirts, it was with a ‘tchh tcch’ that I reluctantly decided to pose at the tail of a queue that summarily seemed the shortest amongst its peers.
After a minute I observed that the queues to my left and right were proceeding faster and it was verified once again that it is always the slowest queue that eternally beckons me in its fold. Visions about the impending presentation flashed. After a week of brainstorming, we had conceptualised some fine concepts for State Bank Of India and if the officious old geezers gave us the green signal, then we would well be on our way to our second ad film and to an established future for our fledgling ad film production company.
Such visions of meritorious excellence and potential future investment in a four-wheeler were interrupted by the rude reality of the man in front of me. He was about five-feet-four-inches in length and three in breadth with an unremarkable face where the chief ingredients were a podgy nose, thin protruding lips and bushy brows. He was dressed formally with ill-matching patent leather shoes and a weathered briefcase in one hand. Rare are the instances in Bombay when a stranger decides to indulge in small talk with you because this is a city where the overbearing weight of humanity can crush the bones with its sheer weight and drown the soul with wretched enervation. The few times when people freely express themselves to strangers, one can be sure that it is only the lucidity of alcohol on their breath that has lubricated their tongues and freed their hearts of cultivated distance and detachment.
This man had just snapped shut and pocketed his cell phone after a brief conversation. Maybe his son had excelled in school exams or maybe he had cracked a business deal or maybe a prayer had been answered by his chosen deity but the latent caffeine-like nervous excitement in him chose to find an implacable outlet.
“See, how these beggars squat right under the ticket counter with their naked offspring in tow. Tchh tchh.”
I looked towards where he was pointing at. A dark, unctuous and emaciated beggar woman was squatting at the counter right beside the queue. It was a familiar sight. The chances of getting change here were higher because giving alms to a beggar in our country is not so much a question of pity as of being at the right place at the right time. Change was more forthcoming here at the railway ticket counters and I am positive that a spot here was a prized one in the beggar community. The woman was breast-feeding a bare assed snivelling toddler in her lap in full view. Nothing unusual about this sight, too, because the shame was not hers but ours. For most of the crowd at the counters, she was as good as invisible. But the man with the nervous energy in front was highly amused as if he had never seen a sight such as this before.
“Bloody one hand begging for money and the other holding her tit…what a revolting sight. Why don’t the railway authorities remove such eyesores from here? Why does the ticket-buying public have to witness such inauspicious sights before our journeys.; they ruin the journey and the day, too.”
I had no answers to offer to this man and preferred to shake my head and remain non-committal like most of the others. What could I do about such things? God had created such situations and god herself would change the situation. What could I, a mere mortal, do in the face of such inequalities which have existed before I was born and will continue to exist after I’m gone? One could only say a prayer of thanks to the almighty for having depositing me in a privileged womb and pray to be thrown thus in similar circumstances in the following birth. Besides, as far as complaining to the authorities about the beggar menace was concerned, everyone knows about the nexus between the authorities and the beggar mafia and as such these beggars will always be allowed to beg with impunity as long as there is money to be made.
A corpulent man in the adjacent line seemed to share similar views: “What’s the use? You have them removed. They will be back the next day. These beggars cannot be reformed. They have been born to beg.”
My queue had now edged forward to about six feet away from the counter. The beggar woman was nonchalantly engaged in her motherly duty and, if anything, the acerbic rants only seemed to make her wave her begging bowl more enthusiastically. The bowl rattled with change. The man in front grew more animated.
“Hey, you useless woman, cover yourself up if you are going to feed that chutiya! Have some self-respect,” shouted the man.
“She’s training the kid. The earlier he starts to beg, the better,” shouted a gangly tall teenager.
A few silly laughs could be heard. I cringed and slowly turned to catch a glimpse at the accursed target. Amazingly, the insidious and heartless barbs and comments scarcely even registered on her physiognomy. “She’s used to it,” I thought and consoled myself and removed my wallet from my back pocket and awaited my turn at the ticket counter being only two bodies away. The man in front’s turn arrived and he hunched over to bring his head in line with the ticket clerk’s face.
“One Elphinstone,” and he dug into his wallet and furnished a hundred-rupee note.
“It’s eight rupees; give me a tenner,” said the ticket clerk.
The man dug into his wallet and removed a fifty.
“Just give me eight rupees. I cannot afford to give change to everyone for such small amounts,” said the clerk with a hint of irritation in his voice.
“I do not have eight bucks. If I had, wouldn’t I have given it to you?” said the man belligerently.
Murmurs of dissent could be heard from behind.
Frustrated, the man looked downwards. The beggar woman was blankly staring up at him. He bent down and collected the change from her bowl and threw them under the window and was promptly thrown back a one-way ticket valid to Elphinstone Road Station. Ticket in hand, the man walked away.
“You forgot to pay her back,” I said perhaps louder than usual.
The man turned to look at me indignantly for a moment. He shrugged and threw the fifty into her bowl and raced away as I dug into my own wallet to remove a tenner.
(From Urban Voice III: Bombay)