This has been happening for a couple of years now. There is a traffic signal just near to my house. Actually, it’s at the turn off to the main road which leads to my housing complex. So, what’s special about this traffic signal? Let me give you some background on what I am talking about.
Almost around two years ago while returning home from my office I first noticed him at this signal. It was late in the evening in the month of July and was drizzling mildly. Mumbai rains are at their peak during this time. I distinctly noticed him as among the halted cars and other vehicles at the red signal, he tried to balance his little and somewhat torn umbrella with his tilted shoulder on one side and limping around trying to hold on to his crutches with his two hands. As he halted near the window of a car, he stretched out his hand. Yes, I believe he was a beggar by profession. He must be around sixty years old and was wearing a white skull cap. He was having a little beard and wore a loose-fitting kurta (a long full sleeve shirt with button till chest) with a lungi wrapped around his waist. Somehow, he had a striking personality! And on top of it, he was constantly smiling! I don’t know the reason but I had a liking for this guy.
This particular signal near my house was the longest red light stop that I had to face daily while returning from office during late evening times. As that man limped around near to my car, I thought of helping him out with a ten-rupee note. I stretched my hand to pick my wallet and I could see him stretching his hand outside my car window wearing the same smile that he had all through this while since I noticed him. Suddenly, the traffic light changed to green and I could hear loud honking by the cars just behind mine. As I struggled to get the money out from my wallet with one hand and with the other opening and adjusting the car window pane, the honking got worse. I knew the green light was for a very short duration maybe for thirty seconds only. Everyone was in a hurry especially the guys on the bikes and scooters as the drizzle was getting worse. I looked outside the window and saw him smiling. This time I was not sure whether it was his genuine smile that he had all this while or if it was at my struggle to take out the money from my wallet. As I had half-opened the window, the drizzle was pouring inside my car now. The fear that the signal might turn red any moment now, I changed the gear and moved ahead looking at him with an apologetic smile. He was smiling as usual and waved me goodbye!
I felt bad as I parked my car inside our residential complex. I was feeling bad that I could not hand out the ten-rupee note to him. Maybe next time! I consoled myself.
And the next time happened the very next day itself! I could hand out the ten-rupee note to him and we exchanged some pleasantries too! I felt good.
Now I would often meet this guy at the signal provided it was red at that time of my crossing it. I would hand over him some money and would inquire about his health and other things. He would answer my questions and then would talk some general talks about the neighbourhood and about his family etc. He told me that he was a factory worker earlier in a packaging plant and lost his one foot due to an accident. He could not retain his job and due to bad financial circumstances at home, he had to resort to begging. One thing that I came to know from him that he was not coming to the signal daily but only on days when he was in need of some money. I found that very striking but it gelled perfectly with his personality.
After a few months, I observed that during our interactions on the signal he started chanting some prayer as soon as I use to hand over the money to him. Just for clarity, I had also raised the amount to Rs Fifty and some time I gave him a hundred rupee note. And for more clarity, my giving him money was more from my liking him and enjoying his interactions rather than to be a saviour to his monetary need. Somehow I believed he did not require any monetary help but was doing this out of his love to interact with people. So, in a way, we were mutually helping each other!
My one-minute interactions with him over the months and year led to an enhancement of my knowledge about the locality and some religious beliefs of Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. I was not sure about his education being the result of his reading books on these subjects or if it was what his father and grandfather taught him which he was sharing with me. Anyways, I was not bothered about that. I just like listening to him. I was in awe of his simple demure and that soft gentle voice with that all-time smile on his face.
It was in the month of May. That particular day while returning from office I was slightly off- mood. I had a really bad day. A lot of issues that day in the office and had some heated arguments during an important meeting. My mind was wandering in too many directions. As I reached the signal near my house, I saw him waving at me. He was at the window of the car in front of me. I smiled back at him and reached out for my wallet. I found I just had a five hundred rupee note in my wallet. By this time he had reached near my car’s window. I lowered the window glass and smiled again at him. He started talking about the heat. It was really hot outside in spite of being such late in the evening. I was not listening to him but was thinking about the only five hundred rupee note that was there in my wallet.
‘Should I give him….but five hundred would be a big amount’. I was thinking.
‘So what, you like…don’t you?’ I heard my inside voice.
‘But what if this raises his expectation?’
I could hear him still speaking on whether and as I reached out to pick my wallet reluctantly I saw his eyes staring at my wallet. I had still not opened it and was not sure if I wanted to…I again looked at him with a kind of confused look. He understood my dilemma…I believe. He suddenly closed his eyes and started chanting the little prayer that he always chanted. Suddenly, the cars behind me started honking. The signal turned to Green. I was still in a dilemma and looked at him. He slowly opened his eyes and with his ever smiling face moved a couple of steps behind and with a bigger smile waved me goodbye. I signalled with my hand that I will give him money next time. I moved my car ahead. I gave him one last look and gave a guilt-ridden smile. He had his normal smile on his face. His was a genuine smile. He again waved at me in a sense more like as if blessing me.
I reached my home. I was now feeling miserable as I parked my car in our housing complex. I hated myself.
‘So, Rs Five hundred is so dear to you? You hypocrite..!’
‘Ok, I am sorry…It was a mistake.’ I heard telling myself. While changing in my bedroom, I took out that Rs Five hundred not and kept it in the inside pocket of my wallet.
‘I’ll give this to him tomorrow. Yes, I would get down at the signal and will give him the Rs Five hundred note.’ I seem to be consoling myself. Actually, I was consoling my guilt.
Next day as I reached the signal while returning home, I tried looking for him but could not locate him. I crossed the signal and looked around. He was nowhere to be seen. I got down from my car and inquired about him with a couple of local shopkeepers including that Paan shop guy. They said he has not come today.
The next day too he was not there. That whole week I did not see him.
It has been more than three months now…I did not see him again after that last meeting with him.
‘What could have happened?’ This question intrigues me every day in the late evening as I cross the traffic signal while returning from office. My eyes search for him all around but he is nowhere to be seen.
He seems to have gone…forever!
I miss him. I have lost a friend.
The crisp Rs Five Hundred note is still kept in the inside pocket of my wallet.
What has been the lesson for me?
We take many things for granted in our life, especially the ones which appear very simple and trivial to us. But life plays on different rules and nothing is for sure. Though there will always be a next time in your life but on those rare occasions, the ‘next time’ will never happen! So, do now what you feel is to be done now rather than leaving it for later or some other time.