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She must have had a name, long ago when she was born. But she had lost it somewhere along the way. Just as she had lost everything else. And now, she was just known as Bikhari, the beggar. For a creature like her...creature, woman, being...whatever she was, the name was adequate. It came straight to the point.
Not that anybody who saw her on that busy Bombay street with her palm outstretched would hesitate for a minute if asked who she was. In her dirty, tattered sari, the patch of a blouse that covered only one breast, her barefooted dark-eyed boniness sticking embarassingly out in all directions, and the whine on her lips, she was that unmistakable Bombay species identifiable as Beggar.
The faded red mark in the middle of her broad forehead would have meant, the the past, that she was married. Not any more. Now they adorned many feminine foreheads, red, white, pink, blue tikas, marks of carefully made-up faces. Hers was of red mud and she had never had a husband.
There was no smile on her face, but, surprisingly, she had soft trembling hopeful lips. The impression they created was sharply erased by the icy-cold stone-flint coal eyes that burned on her dusky face.They burned coldly and fixedly...contemptuously demanding her livelihood from the sweaty, defeated office workers crowding the bus stop. The whine was practiced and the hand that reached out palm upward could also turn into an instant claw of red rage.
As it had done on that rain-swept black night in a back lane. She had seen at once the paper-wrapped bread roll that was thrown out of the second-floor balcony of a dilapidated building. Food. Her stomach contracted, the pangs of hunger propelled her headlong through the lashing rain. But the dog got to it seconds before she did. No matter. She clawed at the bony mongrel, silently fighting its yelping outrage, winning the food for herself and retreating into the shadows. There was no triumph, no victory in her stance. She had not won, she had merely survived.
She had begged ever since she could remember. How had she got on the streets? She didn't know, couldn't even vaguely recall. She didn't know her parents and of her age all she knew was she was in her twenties.A young girl like you, why don't you go and work, people yelled at her while grudgingly giving her a coin. Work. She had tried. Not very hard, that was true. For it was so easy to take the things she wanted and go on her way.Having no background, nobody who could vouch for her, the only work she had been able to get was at constructions of new buildings. And that was day work, she was dismissed as soon as they realized that she was too scrawny to carry the heavy ghamelas of dirt all day. She wasn't worth it. So Bikhari took with her an empty ghamela. It could be useful for cooking. If she ever had anything to cook. Or a kerosene stove to cook it on. Or a kitchen in a straw-covered hut. Safe. Snug. With a man. Man? Never!
She knew what a man was. Another wandering beggar, so many of them, who crept over her as she slept on the pavement. Quickly, brutally physically overwhelmed her, satisfied their needs and went on their way. She had learned early never to fight them. With the dogs, she could win. With men, she conserved all her strength to survive. Silently, she would spit after them and swear at them and then go pack to sleep on the hard pavement.
Once, she had tried to join one of those houses of darkness. Where the scent of jasmine flowers and the blood-red betel juice mingled with mating human flesh. But the bosomy, flab-bottomed madam of the place chased her away. What did she think their customers wanted? A smelly, skeletal rotted piece of meat like her?
And after Bhola, her son, came, she never thught about this escape agin. She had wondered for a while who his father coulld be. There was no way to tell. It could be the one whose bidi lit up the hatred in her eyes as she contemptuously watched him at work on her. Or the one whose overwhelming stink stifled her even more than his body.Or the gentle one who walked shame-facedly away afterwards, slipping her a coin. So many of them...the faceless night raiders. She waas glad she didn't know.
But for this little one, tenderness and love washed over her. She loved him, her little Bhola. The innocent one with his smiling kind eyes and his bag-of-bones body.He was all hers. She had brought him forth from her own body herself, in the dark corner of the one-way street. She had washed the blood from his glistening newborn body at the roadside tap,fed him from her milkwet breasts, squeezing the last drop into his mouth.
He had grown taller, his thin brown body with all its limbs intact. So what if he didn't get much when he begged. At least he was healthy. There was hope for him, and there was hope for herself. Who was she fooling?
Who was she fooling? The hope had been there when she cut the umblical cord with a sharp piece of stone. When he was a year old, she could beg more money by pointing him out to people. Here she was, a helpless mother. People were sorry for the crying child.She hated it, but she had to sometimes secretly pinch her baby to make him cry.Yes, she hated it, but it had to be done. They had to live. And the hope built up when he was growing up. It had happened before. She had seen other bikharis like her. Women who raised a child, and then retired from begging. Their child did it for them.
Oh, they didn't really give it up forever. For it had become a habit. The palm stretched out of its own will, the familiar whine gurgled up from some innermost depths to the ready lips and the begging happened. But the happiness, the hope was that survival was not a problem. The child, for some obscure human reason, commanded more charity with its demands. There were more coins, more food than a woman could ever get in her own. She was set for life.
When was it that the disappointment had settled on her, biting at her flesh like a vulture till the cancer of uncertainly became conviction. Bhola never got as much as the other kids. He knew it himslf. It puzzled him.He pleaded as hard as the other kids, walked barefoot in the blazing sun ignoring the blisters, even fell in supplication at the feet of the fat sethias who strolled on their evenng walks, munching on there cones of peanuts. No matter. His day's takings were meagre.
Then, with childlike certainty, it was Bhola who found ut why.All at once he knew. He said so to his mother. His friend, the lame beggarboy always got more coins thn anybody. And people gave him their leftovers when the roadside snacking was over. The delicious grains of left-over bhelpuri that stuck to the leaf container went into his tummy. Though they all clamoured for it, the street boys, the delicacy was singled out for the lame one. Why don't you healthy rascals go and find work, they were shouted at. You have two arms, two legs.
So Bhola was lost too. As lost as she was. And the future lay confused and bare, a shadowed sceptre. Till when, oh God, till when woud she have to go on like this? She would kill herelf, but to kill oneself was an unforgivable sin. It would bring her even more misery in her next life. Oh Bhagwan, what was she to do.
Bhola, Bhola, Bhola. Don't get that way...don't get that hard knowing look in your eyes. Mother will find a way. There was no way. And now, there was the other life to think aout, the little knot of existence that was flowering in her womb. The soft-petalled lotus created out of the ugliness of the night. She was desperate.And that is why she took Bhola with her to the Mahalaxmi temple.
She had never gone there before. She knew that it was no place for her gentle Bhola. And it waasn't. Hundreds of beggrs were perched like hungry flies on the stone steps leading up to the temple. And the pious people, head-covered and dignified, walked up these steps with their offerings of coconut and flowers to the bored deities inside. The beggars watched and waited. Like hungry vultures in the hot white sun.
And when the devotees returned, distributing their coins and goodwill, the claws grabbed, bodies trampled over each other while the coins rattling in tin-plates screamed in a crescendo of wails.Stampeding for the crumbs. Mauling each other. But never the devotees. They were holy. They piously washed away past karma by giving alms to these wretched poor ones.
Bhola had almost been trampled to death.Screaming, shrieking, half-mad with terror, Bhikhari pulled him away from the demented crowds. Organised begging was chaotic. Not for her Bhola, though she had thought that was the answer. As she covered and hid her son in her tattered sari, she heard a white-dhotied man complain to his wife.Next time, they should throw the food-offerings into the sea. The good karma would be the same as in feeding the poor. These beggars!
That night, the pains came. Sooner than she had expected. The little one inside kicked and fought. A wan smile came to her lips, despite the pain. This one would be a fighter. He would not shrink and suffer like Bhola. He would demand his right to live from the world. And his appeal would not be rejected. She would make sure of that.
She lay down in the shadowed doorway, behind some abandoned crates that grinned at her emptily.The stars mocked at her impending motherhood and even the moon risked a cynical peep.A primal scream of anguish was strangled in Bikhari's heart as she brought forth her squealing , slimy, blood-red baby.
The squealing turned to terrified cries that shattered the peaceful sleep of the good citizens. Even before the cord was cut, with all the force of her tired callused heels she stamped out the light in those baby eyes. A blind beggar always survived. Vaguely, she wondered whether it was a boy or a girl, before she gave way, spent and exhausted, to the crouching night.