The young man balanced himself with difficulty after stumbling against the sleeping dog by the roadside. The dog had felt the man’s foot poke sharply in his ribs, and stood up with a growl. Cursing, the man kicked him in the stomach and walked away. Taken by surprise by the hard kick, the dog ran away whining. Sundaram, who was squatting on the opposite side of the road, smiled sadly.
It was just a couple of days ago that he had shifted to this side which had a narrow walking pavement. Observing that his daily begging collections in the bowl placed in front of him, had reduced when he was on that side, he had decided to try his luck here. Earlier, he had chosen to squat on that side as he felt safer and protected sitting by the edge of the retaining wall of the mountain. Now here, behind him, there were just a few boulders placed at random large gaps. They were the only shield, if at all, between him and the steep mountain slope with a dense forest. The shops of the small hill village were a little ahead, a few yards away. The shopkeepers being compassionate to his being physically handicapped, allowed him to sit at a distance from their shop entries. He looked at the stub of his amputated leg. Feeling an itchy sensation, he gently rubbed the rough palm of his hand over it.
The dog having had run away, had stopped at some distance. In such circumstances, Sundaram reflected that the unfortunate being would always be at the mercy of the people who walked being too engrossed in themselves, to be able to see ahead. They would indifferently kick off any obstructions they stumbled against. He noticed that the dog had started trotting back slowly. Smiling, he waved out to him. The poor animal had a scared look, and crossed over to this side of the road. Sundaram called out to him and laughed, “Come Manu, let’s share this loaf of bread. It’ll give you strength to bear the blows.”
The dog and Sundaram, now close friends, had known each other only for a few days, but in this time, had developed a strong unsaid bond. He had hardly settled in this area when, probably sensing hunger on his face, one day the dog had quietly brought and placed a chapati* near him. It was from the feed which the nearby restaurant owner gave the dog everyday. Since then both had spent many an hour together, like ones belonging to the same species. They did not communicate much with each other, but occasionally shared that meaningful and penetrating look, thus reassuring themselves of their friendship. Sundaram fondly called him Manu now, which had been the name of the village dog in his own village— a part of his childhood memories.
The morning sun had climbed up the hills beyond and seemed to be surveying everything around, as if to check whether all was the same as it had been on her departure the previous day. The fresh swift winds from the mountain forests hurriedly passed the trees and bushes, as if waking them up from their slumber.
“Another day!” said Sundaram to himself. “Let’s hope it brings some happy tidings.”
As time passed, the stream of people increased. Most of them were residents of the village, which also was house to some very beautifully located hill resorts in the close vicinity. It was now the beginning of the tourist season. Sundaram mused, “The tourists would be lying bundled in cozy blankets or relishing the splendor of romance in nature.”
Sundaram did not bother to beg for a coin or two from the residents. When it was the tourist season, they were always too preoccupied with their marketing strategies as how to make the best from the tourists.
Ever since the loss of his leg in a railway accident forty years ago, Sundaram had developed an indifferent attitude to worldly possessions. Earlier on, after the accident, not able to get a job, he had become passionately involved in religious practices, devoting most of his time in praise of God, and in the process, making just enough money to keep himself going. In the process, he became a good singer of religious chants and songs. Gradually, he realised that his body could not take that much of stress and activity, and he had to compromise in spending longs hours, singing hymns while sitting. And so, he settled down as a life-time beggar, probably a much more convenient occupation than that of a saint. It would have been too difficult for him, he often told himself, to run about on one leg, carrying urgent messages from God. The money he got by begging was barely enough to satisfy his hunger, but he wanted no more.
Living by himself all these years, Sundaram had come to comprehend better, his inner beliefs and those of society’s. The suffering and humiliation he experienced, had given him, though painfully, a capacity for forbearance. The quantum of patience he thus had accumulated, gave him the strength to smilingly withstand the mocking of the insensitive people.
In the recent times, he had observed that while trading in prayers for patrons, he became so absorbed by divine thoughts, that he often found himself unconsciously talking to the Lord, whose picture he always carried in his pocket. He took out the picture to address himself to the Lord, “Bless everyone, Oh Great One, let all have your mercy.” Instinctively, he started humming a song highlighting the virtues of his Lord.
Though a bit course, Sundaram’s sincere voice seemed to magnify the meaning of the words he sang.
Sundaram turned his eyes towards the road and spotted some prospective clients approaching. A couple accompanied by their two young children was coming towards him, walking at a leisurely pace. The children were in a cheerful mood enjoying themselves. As they drew nearer, he extended both his hands upwards, and broke out into a hymn from the Ramayana.
When the lady sighted him, she at once knit her brow in distaste. “God! These beggars don’t leave us in peace even on a holiday,” she turned her head in the direction of the scenic mountains.
The younger of the two children ran to her and said, “Mama, give me a coin. I want to give it to the old man.”. Seeing his wife’s withdrawal to the appeal, the boy’s father smiled and addressed his wife, “Uma dear, the beggar’s hand is also extended like our little Tarun’s. A cripple is also like a child.” Taking out a few coins from his pocket, he gave it to Tarun, who rushed happily towards Sundaram.
“God bless you, your brother and merciful parents.” Sundaram blessed the child. He had been touched by the remark of the boy’s father. “Could he be compared with a child?” The thought regenerated him and brought to his mind an image of his small, young figure standing erect on two tiny feet. This image generated a positivity in him, and filled him with a cheer for a while. The laughter of a newly-wed couple approaching him caught his attention. They appeared to be happily enjoying a joke together. The girl was excitedly narrating something and the man kept nodding his head. Partially shadowed by her hair, the girl’s fresh glowing face seemed ignited with joy in her heart. Sundaram was swept over to his youthful days. It was when he was returning after meeting his beloved Moksha that he had met with the horrible accident. He used to call her Pumpkin for the refreshing rotundity of her face. Simple in looks, she radiated a charm which immediately captured the imagination of a keen onlooker. He still cherished recollections of her carefree and warm personality. After the accident, Sundaram could not bring himself to make her part of his suffering and quietly moved away from her. The guilt of betrayal, if it was a betrayal, still gnawed him at times.
The young couple was no longer at a distant from him, and the burst of another fit of laughter from them unconsciously brought laughter to him. The girl turned towards him and smilingly inquired, “Baba, why are you laughing at us?” The girl kept looking at Sundaram. Addressing her husband, she said, “Avinash, I have seen such beautiful wrinkles as this man’s.”
Sundaram found himself blushing. It was after years that someone had paused to talk about him and acknowledged his physical looks. Encouraged, he spoke to the girl, “These are the assets of old age, Mem-sahib*.”
Avinash disinterestedly dropped a ten rupee note in Sundaram’s bowl and guided his wife ahead.
Sundaram felt a flow of great warmth in him. Impulsively, he started patting the dog Manu who had quietly come and made himself comfortable beside him. Not used to such unrestrained show of affection, the dog looked up at him with instinctive inquisitiveness. Sundaram continued patting the wondering animal who after a while, jerked his head and got up, no longer bearing his curiosity. Giving Sundaram one of those baffled looks, he strolled away while Sundaram started patting the stump of his amputated leg.
The morning activity was now in full swing. The vendors in the distance were busy setting up in style, the freshly arrived cherries, plums and apricots. The vegetables had been neatly laid out. Breathing the fresh mountain air, made him feel good. Shifting to this village cum hill resort was indeed a welcome change for him from the harshness of the urban plains. But Sundaram also realised that his existence whether here or elsewhere, did not really concern anybody. Life was a lonely track for him, often too lonely to bear.
The dog had again come back. He stared at Sundaram for a moment and then quietly squatted by his side. Sundaram was about to pat him again but he held his hand back, lest he should go away. The dog evoked a sense of companionship in him which he often missed and yearned for. Manu stared at him, then around and finally decided to slowly close his eyes.
Manu’s lazy slumber was cut short by a stone hitting him. He woke up all alert, and growlingly tried to establish the source of the assault. Two teenage boys standing at a distance, laughed. The taller of them threw another stone towards Manu. Normally the dog would have run away, but this time he stood his ground and sprang at the boys with a fierce bark. Frightened, the boys ran away for their lives.
Sundaram was surprised by Manu’s bravado, and nodded his head in approval. The dog had followed a tit-for-tat policy. Apparently, the early-morning episode seemed to have changed his outlook. “He was surely learning the laws of survival,” mused Sundaram. “But I can never apply these laws for my wellbeing.” He had always felt that he was at the mercy of others. He had probably lost that fighting spirit. Shrugging his shoulders and with a sigh, he looked up towards the sky. An eagle high up was practicing some very smooth diving maneuvers. “Ah- if only I could be as carefree as that bird!” His face twitched with pain in his right thigh joint, with the slight shift in posture. Whereas the left one, whenever it remained in one position for long, would stiffen and feel like rock.
The crowd on the road had thinned down. In fact, there was hardly anybody in the vicinity. Sundaram could hear the echo of the distant hum of an engine from beyond the blind turning. The dog after his grand display, had come back to his place next to Sundaram.
It gave no time to Sundaram to think and act. The truck came into view on the turning and was heading at high speed- straight towards him. The driver had probably not either seen him or there was something wrong with him, as it was still heading for him at the same high speed. Sundaram frantically waved his hands, shouted out, but to no avail. The truck continued zooming towards him in high velocity. Panic mounted in him.
The dog, sensing trouble, hurriedly got up and ran to the other side of the road.
Sundaram stared on helplessly. As a last resort, seeing the racing truck only a few yards away, Sundaram, with all his might, pushed his body back. The next minute he found his leg in a void, when something touched his hands in the process. It was a small bolder, rooted between the edge of the pavement and the steep vertical mountain slope. He quickly tried to grab it. But Sundaram did not have the strength to pull himself up and fearfully looked down.
A vast thick jungle lay below. The distant vegetation there was dense and dark. In that second, it appeared to him that the trees had all come out to shout to him silently. “Jump! Come on, jump Sundaram!” His eyes sensed a warmth emanating from the conglomeration of the trees below. They all seemed to be urgently calling out to him to come down there in their company.
Sundaram could no longer hold on to the bolder. As if responding to their hospitable concern, his grip loosened, and the next second he was in the air, heading down to their beckoning embrace.
Chapati*- flour bread,
By Suneet Paul