Fiction: A Beggar’s Tale

Abu Siddik

- Abu Siddik

The morning was brilliant. The crows quarreled on the roof of the hut. They vied to peck the scrubs of the stale bread Kali Dashi threw at dawn daily. For ten minutes they cawed and caroused, and then disappeared. The old Dashi then trudged along the dusty village road for day’s begging. Villagers called her Kali Dashi, as her skin was like tar, and she lived in an outer fringe of the village where scavengers, sweepers, rag pickers soothed day’s wounds under the clusters of stars.
If one asked her age, she laughed like a child, and showed her blackish beautifully arrayed teeth, and looked vacant. She had bushy grey hair, sharp nose, and small dark eyes. She was lean and of medium height. In her youth she was a village beauty. Now her skin slackened and shrank, and body wizened. Eyes lost luster, but her hair and teeth had still the remnants of her youthful exuberance.
Beside the jackfruit tree there were four rows of betel nuts, twirled with wild climbers, tossing heads in glee. The squirrels squeaked, birds sang, and monkeys chattered day long in the yard. And in spring cuckoos’ carols made her tired. Mondays and Saturdays she didn’t beg. She cooked whatever she had in store, and smoked and saw the swaying of the treetops, heard the birds and made war with the monkeys with her loved crooked stick.
In summer days when the sun burnt everything to ashes Dashi lay under the shade of the jackfruit, and crooned. And when she sang, her dog Moti came from nowhere, and lay tucked to her caged ribs, and licked her cheeks wriggling its body. In winter she kept her shut for days. She didn’t have regular bath or food. Only she smoked, and slept, and Moti howled now and then, and guarded the thatch. Her eyesight was poor, but ears still sharp. She could sense a stranger even from a mile. Sometime she giggled, and next wept bitterly just like the alternate play of the sun and shower in a sparkling rainy day. 
As a beggar she had a special status. She didn’t beg with others, and never went to a door where once she was refused. And villagers if their hens or ducks or goats died, they waited for her turn. She tied and slung the dead ducks or hens to one end of her walking stick, put it on her shoulder, and went home. And the children followed her staunchly and taunted,
“O, Dashi, Khudar Khashi! Do you eat dead hens or rats? Give us the birds, we’ll cook, and give you a cup of soup.”
And she hurled torrents of abuse, called their parents by obscene names. The children and the old alike relished the scene, and teased her more. She plodded, and children followed. She stopped, and children soon made them statues back. They sometime threw dust and pelted her with fig fruits, tomatoes, and berries. And the dogs of our neighborhood barked and barked. 
 Maa loved Dashi much. On Sundays at our home Dashi along with dozens of beggars were served with a pot of rice or a coin. They were also offered old clothes, gunny sacks, plastic pots, vegetables, rice, eggs, milk, etc. From the early morning beggars made a beeline to our door. And we, the children of the house, quarreled and skirmished to serve them first. Some wore lungis, and some dhotis. Women wore sarees. Some were blind, some deaf and dumb, and came with their grandchildren. Some came limping. And the Muslims chanted ‘la elaha illallah,’ and the Hindus ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama,’ by playing flutes or beating drums. They queued, had alms and, blessed us for bounty and bliss.
There was a ritual at our home. In every year a Friday was fixed for the feast of the beggars. On that holy day they came well dressed. We hardly recognized them. They gossiped, dined, and belched, sheltering in an attached shed. They then sang some of their own, some form other noted pirs and bauls, and recited special verses from the holy books, and asked gods for our health and wealth. They blew our heads, tapped cheeks, and prayed. The elders all circled them, and we became dumb with awe and wonder. Maa wiped her eyes, and father and uncles looked grave and solemn.
On that day Dashi used to come in her best white saree. She didn’t dine with other guests. She sat on our verandah and smoked. Maa called her then, and she followed to the kitchen. She was offered a sack to sit cross legged, a palm leaf to fan, and served on a banana leaf. She didn’t speak. When we went close to her, she looked at us with the eyes of a timid rabbit. After eating she went to the well side. She found a tree, and under it sat, smoked, and dozed for a while. And when the sun mellowed, she took whatever maa gave, and slogged homeward. 
Sometime in some hot summer days she sat under a kadam tree after the day’s round. The tree was in full bloom, and its scent wafted the village. Birds were flinging from twigs to twigs, and their callings made peasants fatigued. They clamped hands in exasperation, but they took no flight. They kept mum for a while, and sang again. She used to haunch at a farthest corner, and smoked languidly. Meanwhile the urchins got somehow the news, and they soon rounded and humiliated her. An elderly man or woman, however, drove the children away, and rescued her for the day.
And the day when nobody came, exasperated by the children she cried, and thumped her head against the tree. And if her anger was not assuaged, she threw her saree away and made her stark naked. Children fled, men took their eyes off, and then from somewhere an aunt came running, and tried to wrap her around. She shrieked and fought her, and shook her aged body vehemently. She then looked wild. She laughed terribly. She made whirling around herself until she fell flat on the ground. She squeezed, and threw her limbs at every side. She pulled her hair, and groaned like a wounded animal. She became smeared with dust, and a strain of thick saliva oozed out of her wasted lips.
Nobody knew her story. But the elderly said she was once married to a famous Kaloo dacoit. He abused her for days, and tied her often to a post. He didn’t give her food either. People feared Kaloo and shunned him. They sighed for Dashi but couldn’t do anything. And at one dead night when the moon was bathing the village and the paddy fields looked silvery, she somehow untied herself. Her husband was in deep sleep. She took a knife, and sliced him into pieces. That night her neighbours couldn’t sleep. Dogs whined, foxes squeaked, and children cried spasmodically whole night. And in the morning when the dogs and foxes clashed for the flesh, villagers crowded, and culled the pieces into a sack and burnt it in a nearby crematorium. 
Many years later, Dashi, hair grayed, limbs twisted, suddenly appeared from nowhere with some dead hens. She cleared the hut for days, built a mud oven, and cooked, and a foul smoke engulfed the village. People were vexed, and cursed her, and counting days for her death. But it always eluded her, and she lived for another decade or so. 
Then the year of the deluge came. The river swelled and ate the village. Huts and cattle were washed away. Many died. A few took shelter to some upper lands. We made rafters of banana, and swam across the village at day. And at night we took shelter in a big two storied house of a rich man of the village. People forgot to eat, and they all cursed Dashi for their bad luck. Some had lost cattle, some children, some huts. Water was everywhere.  There was no place for burial or burning the dead. Corpses of cats, dogs, birds, children, elderly, and cattle were floating on the flooded fields and the rivers day and night.
We couldn’t burn Dashi. We placed the corpse onto a rafter, and wrapped her with leaves of banana, and tied it with ropes, and let it go with the surge of the slimy whirling eddies. 

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