I was waiting at the railway station this noon for the train I usually take to get to work. I saw an old guy, walking towards me. He was dark in colour and had no expression on his face. He hardly blinked. It was hot but he wore a shawl as thick as a mattress and he carried a stick to support his slouching body. While I was busy day-dreaming about my life, I had observed the people sitting on the nearby benches and a few standing beside me. There was another old man sitting on this bench and his character seemed to contrast the others. He was dressed in formals, seeming to be going to work as well. He had a brown briefcase too to support this fact. And he looked healthy and had a calm feeling about him unlike the one walking towards me, towards us.
As he came closer, he began to slow down until eventually he stopped. It aroused a little curiosity in me. I turned my head towards him so I can see better than I could from the corner of my eyes. He extended his hand to the sitting old man, apparently asking for money. He looked into his eyes, not with an attitude that an inferior might carry, but of expectation as if demanding something this was his. And it worked. The guy gave him a few coins, I’d assume about 5 rupees. And then he kept walking.
It reminded me of myself years ago, when I had just joined college and had to use the train everyday. I was very annoyed to have to deal with beggars every time I was at the station as it is quite a norm to find them there. On second thought, I was not as annoyed as I was unsure of the correct way to deal with the situation and hence, uncomfortable. Over the years, I’ve had many discussions about it, a few arguments as well with most of my friends and at times even with beggars themselves. And I’ve learned that if one is of the opinion that giving them money is encouraging them to continue begging, like I am, then the best option is to ignore them completely. A lot of practice has made this an unconscious habit now. So, as he was passing me by, I turned my head the other way, so as not to make direct eye contact. However, I could still see from the corner of my eye that he wasn’t going to ask me or anyone else standing beside me for any money. He just kept walking. After walking about fifteen steps, he stopped in front of another bench, this time where a few old women were sitting and chatting. He looked, no, stared for about 6 seconds before he extended his hand towards them and he did so in the same fashion as before. The women refused to give him any money though. And he did not push it any further. He just looked ahead and kept walking, seeming to be in control of the situation, as if that rebuttal was expected. He walked slowly with his stick and one slightly bent leg but he left with grace and without losing face.
I boarded the train that was now here and I couldn’t help but think of what I had just witnessed. So I took my notepad out and started writing. I kept thinking of reasons why he was so selective with the people he chose to ask for money. Perhaps, he was good at reading body language and he could get by the expression on somebody’s face if they’d offer him something or not. Or maybe, he was too proud to beg and found little spurts of courage only once in a while to humble himself and extend his hand I fancy to believe in the former theory as it sounds more exciting to me. But whatever the reason might be, one thing fascinates me as I just thought of it— one extends ones hands both when asking for help, in this case begging, and when offering help figuratively. That must mean something, right? May be it doesn’t. Maybe it does. I don’t believe in co-incidences. So, I’ll believe and leave you to figure it on your own. Another thing about the incident that didn’t excite me much, made me a little sad actually, was how the bum had more grace than most people I meet everyday. He begged because he had to or perhaps he was used to. I am not to judge him for that. But he was selective. He believed that he could afford to be selective. And just the previous day, someone talked about being so desperate for money that he mentioned he’d take money thrown at him like a dog. And one would say he had enough money! What contrast! Most of us in life are defaulters. We default to whatever is the trend or whatever people around us are doing . We default to habits and attitudes because we find them normal just as everyone else does. But to go against the flow, to make a choice that no one can and to select rather than accept everything requires courage. If a beggar can, why can’t we? To him, he’s not a beggar but to us he is. And to me? He was a hero, in his own way. My hero for the day.
Note: I wrote this a few months ago but couldn’t get around to posting it here.