These are the stories, I tell my daughter, about my childhood in Bombay.
I am walking through the heavy rains, with my haversack inside my raincoat, and my gum boots splashing water all around the street. I purposely seek puddles of water and stomp my boots into them. I am walking all by myself, from my school to my house. I have walked this route for the last 5 years, and know the sights and sounds of the streets by heart.
In June, Mumbai (then called Bombay) experiences some of the heaviest rains, and with that, comes the cold which can chill the warm sun-loving citizens of this coastal city.
I come to Princess Street, navigating through the crowds, and crossing the streets with honking cars, and shouting hand-cart "drivers", I reach the gate to the building where I live, and look at the sandwich vendor who sells vegetable sandwiches for 30 paisa each. He waves to me with a long black thin knife in his hand; he is busy slicing tomatoes and, as I pass by him, I notice a beggar lying next to him, wet, skinny, his ribs showing, and spit drooling from his mouth. He is nearly naked, save for shorts of some kind that he is wearing, covered with wet newspapers, which are not much to keep him dry or warm. He is shivering in the cold.
Spread on the pavement around him are a few coins and a tin can filled with water.
I glance at the beggar and walks past the Farsan Shop (a shop that sells savouries) , and into the entrance of Fida Building, running into the dark narrow corridor and up the stairs, to the third floor where my family and I live.
As I am changing clothes, I tell my grandmother about the beggar lying there, but, although she acknowledges me, she carries on with her daily routine as if she never heard me.
Around 5 pm, my mother ask me to get 2 vegetable sandwiches. I grab an umbrella and runs down the stairs, excited.
Standing in between the sandwich man and the shivering beggar, I order the sandwiches, and ask for and get the courtesy cucumber-slice with salt and pepper and a little ketchup spread on it. I mouth it immediately, and I can see the shivering beggar looking at me. I look back calmly at him, turn around and run back up to my home with the sandwiches, still munching on the freebie in my jaws.
On other days, I see other customers order their sandwiches and eat them on the street, the beggar staring at them all and beseeching them for some food.
Not surprisingly, a Mumbaikar can shamelessly eat food in front of a hungry staring person without feeling any guilt or remorse. City life immunizes them to others' pain, hunger and suffering.
As days progress, the beggar’s health deteriorates; he is now unable to move, his clothes are spoiled from human wastes, and a bad smell of pus, rotting flesh and urine comes from him. People are complaining, especially the sandwich man, as he is losing business.
He becomes the subject of daily evening talk, when the neighboring aunties meet in the building hallways, just before the evening prayers, looking out for the electric bulb to light up on the door of the neighboring mosque - a signal to inform the faithful to begin praying the Maghrib salat. Everybody wishes for the beggar to just disappear, and are quite irritated that the municipality or the police have not moved him from there. Some are even convinced that the beggar must have paid a bribe to the police to let him stay there.
A few days later, as is my daily evening habit, I stand in our room window, looking out at the street and the people walking there, counting the ghoda gaadis (horse-carts) and the Fiat and Ambassador cars. Then, I notice a crowd gathered near the sandwich vendor.
Brimming with curiosity, I run down to the street, jumping 4-5 stairs at one time, to see what had happened.
The beggar's body is covered with a clean white sheet of cloth, and spread on this sheet are lots of Rupees, five-rupee and ten-rupee notes. I have never seen a beggar with so much money. I am busy calculating the vegetable sandwiches he could be buying with that money.
Then I realize that he is dead.
I was never a stranger to death. I had seen many in my 10 years of life. We were never shielded from death - every day from my window, I would join my parents or grandparent to see a dead man being carried by his family and friends on the street - sometimes for burial, and sometimes for cremation, depending on their religion.
The crowd grew all around him. I squeezed my way right up to the front, and was standing there among strangers, listening to their conversations, and watching their reactions.
The people were talking about how sick he had been, how they wished they or somebody else had taken him to the hospital, about how he came from some remote village to get medical treatment, and why he had selected this very spot to beg, about how they had given him some food or money, and so on. Everyone seemed to recollect having given alms or food to the dead man.
In an hour or so, a municipality hearse came by and picked up the body and the money and carried him away. The local sweeper threw water on the spot and brushed it hard to remove all traces of the beggar. The crowds came back to buy their evening sandwiches.
Everybody was happy. It was a win-win situation, after all. For one, the beggar was dead and gone, and, for another, they had contributed to his burial or cremation, and that would bring them blessings from the Almighty above.
In the evening, as the building aunties congregated in the verandah, they talked about the poor beggar, and some said that they, too, had given money for his cremation.They all agreed this was something that would bring them "sawaab", or blessings, from Allah.
The life and death of the beggar did not affect me in anyway beyond this point, and I continued to lead my usual life.
But after 40 years, I still remember it very clearly, and I daresay, the event did change me in some imperceptible way.
The citizens of Mumbai are very kind to the dead, but treat living souls with contempt.
You may wonder why it is that to contribute to the last rites of a dead person is considered a Sawaab (blessing) in all religions.
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