“Dada, can you feed me a plate of chow mein?”
I was sitting at one of the innumerable fast-food stalls spread around Dalhousie, their cheap allure and rich aroma attracting workers and beggars with equal eagerness. I looked up from my plate of stir-fried noodles at my uninvited guest – a bare-chested man with one dirty hand holding up a corner of the torn khaki trousers which, despite being held together by a rope, precariously dangled from his slim waist. In his other hand, he held a small bowl which jingled every time he flicked his wrist. His dark face was a mess of repulsive unclean hair of which the long scruffy beard was now parted to expose a yellowish toothy grin.
The stall owner rebuffed, in response to which the beggar reluctantly drifted, carrying his light frame on his heavy legs. The jingling sound slowly died as he moved from one food stall to the other.
“Do you live nearby?”
He shook his head. “I don’t live anywhere.”
The beggar had arrived again. Before the shopkeeper could voice his disagreement and shoo him, I bought a plate to appease both parties. The beggar sat down against the wall and devoured the food from an old newspaper.
“So, you never had a home?”
“I had one, a long time back. My brother used to beat us, my mother, myself. My father had already died. Then one day, he came home drunk and pushed us out of the small house. My mother died in a ditch and I kept wondering. You know, I have a BA and I was part of a theatre group. But no one cares about degrees or talent. All they care about is money. Money, money, money…”
I looked at his face. Under the mess of dirty hair and scraggly beard, which now had pieces of carrots and onion sticking to them, he did have a young face and was perhaps in his mid-thirties.
Swiftly, the beggar got up and thanked me. He blessed me a thousand times and scurried down to the corner where he turned and disappeared.
I did not meet the beggar for many weeks. But I, too, was partly responsible for the disunion. Madhu had started packing lunch as retaliation against my growing blood pressure and waistline. So, I was now spending most afternoons in the office, with colleagues, listening to their gossips and occasionally taking sides in office politics. My work had also increased significantly, and I, therefore, found less reason to visit my beloved food stall.
Today Mahesh, the office peon, had piled a stack of files on my desk. “Dutta da wants this by today evening,” he had announced fastidiously and scrambled off. Raghubir Dutta was my boss and after working for six years, if there was one vital piece of knowledge I had acquired then it was this: when Dutta said next week, he meant this week; if he said tomorrow, he meant today.
Sometimes, when files were not coveting my attention, I indulged in wondering why I slogged so much for so little. Other times, I romanticized the impossible idea of taking an additional job that would help me make a few extra rupees. But almost urgently I would dismiss those thoughts remembering well that my father never had the luxury of sending me to a business school. I needed money to make money.
Madhu had been insisting on a family outing for a long time and today we finally decided to watch a movie at New Empire, shop at New Market, and ruin our health by indulging in street food.
After gorging on generous servings of puchka, papri chat, and lemon soda, the children insisted we visit the museum, for they had never been to one and had always wanted to see the mummy. I complied knowing well that my previous repartee of pointing my finger towards Madhu, as the answer to the “is there a mummy in Calcutta” question, would be met with scorn. Besides, the museum wasn’t far.
Upon our arrival, we were met with a thick crowd of impassioned souls, all gathered around the 4,000-year-old dead body. Madhu and the kids happily joined them. I stayed by the double-swinging door and watched.
As my eyes scanned the room, they briefly fell on the guard in his green uniform who stood in a corner, his right thumb stuck stylishly in his belt. Under the green cap, his face was clean-shaven, and his eyes moved in quick motions around the room. He was mostly invisible except for the way his wrists occasionally flicked, which looked shockingly familiar!
For a moment I paused and fiercely denied the idea. But I had to know. I moved along the boundary until I was standing beside him. I inched closer and tried meeting his eye. My suspicion and the thought I had been denying until the present moment had now become perplexingly factual. He, however, pretended not to have noticed me and continued avoiding my gaze. Finally, I said, “excuse me dada, I think I have seen you somewhere?”
This time, he looked at me. But only for a brief moment. And the expression of mild surprise on his face was hinted at neither shock nor bewilderment. Instead, he nodded and said, “I’m sorry but I don’t know you.”
What a rascal! Of course, he did! “Remember you were in Dalhousie, near the chow mein seller, you wanted to eat some chow mein? Remember?”
“Dalhousie? Chow mein? I’m sorry sir but I do not understand.”
Against all risks, I took an early leave during lunch and cited an important meeting with a customer. Thankfully, Dutta was preoccupied to have noticed the lie. I went over to the same stall and hid myself behind a bunch of bodies. His appearance, however, felt doubtful after my confrontation. And I was right. After waiting for half an hour, I went looking for him. I scanned the countless stalls, shops, and the streets packed with people.
Ending the futile search, I headed towards the bus stand and I was about to board my bus when my eyes fell on a juice seller at the far end of the street. There he was, hunched on the ground, relishing the sweet sugarcane juice and ecstatically smacking his lips.
I waited. He slowly got up and disposed of the plastic vessel in the dustbin. Then, performing his fake staggering, but in a brisker pace than usual, he walked till the end of the road and turned a corner. I suddenly knew where he was heading. I followed. Proving me right, the beggar had entered the small playground. However, he promptly emerged with a suspiciously clean bag which he carried to the public urinal. And a few minutes later, without my eyes getting flabbergasted any more, the museum guard emerged in his crisp tidy green uniform and cap, looking sharp, victorious, and, I suspected, perfumed as well.
Today when he arrived and performed his usual theatrics, I bought him food and sat him in a corner.
“I know about your dual life,” I said, slightly agitated and angry that he still vehemently refused his arrest. “The police might find it very interesting you know that. Why are you acting and fooling people?”The man gulped the remaining food and got up. He smiled and softly replied, “aren’t we all?” And in the afternoon noisy crowd, he turned around the corner and disappeared.