Beggars Banquet


Broke in India! It would probably be high on many people’s list of don’t do’s, under any circumstances. But sometimes these things do happen, even to a seasoned traveller, through misfortune, or miscalculation, or a lapse of attention. I can’t pretend that my story had less than all three possibilities.


I was absolutely broke, in India. Well, to be more accurate, I had just four rupees and a few paise – around forty cents – in my wallet, although I had several thousand dollars in traveller’s cheques. My problem was really only temporary, since as soon as the banks would open, my insolvency would be past.


It was Sunday though, and I had just arrived in the large town of Dehra Dun after almost a month walking in the Himalayas, in a remote area. I had intended to trek for much longer but had made a slight misjudgement. Having been told it was possible to cash cheques in the small town of Purola, I descended from the high passes and tiny villages. Anyway, I really did need a few days of some comfort to address the immediate needs caused by lone trekking in the monsoon season. All my clothes were damp or downright soggy, and certainly filthy. There had literally not been even half a day without rain to consider drying anything. Added to this, my heels were pulpy with blisters from walking a couple of hundred kilometers at altitude, and were threatening to become badly infected. I had to have a hotel room for some days respite.


Purola had no facility for changing money, and I had barely enough rupees for one night’s very basic accommodation, plus the bus fare to Dehra Dun. No choice. I took the bus at the crack of dawn and arrived jolted and bruised in the early evening, with my four rupees, which was clearly too little even for the most spartan hotel room. Somehow I had even managed to lose my rubber flip -flops. I limped painfully on the heels of my sodden boots, hoping to win the favour of a cheap hotel on credit. Luck was on my side and an inn-keeper trusted me sufficiently to allow me to pay on the morrow. With the four rupees still intact, I had to choose between soap and a meal of dal and chapatis. Hunger won my decision. I ate frugally, had a soapless shower, and crashed into bed exhausted. Tomorrow I would eat like a king, wash myself and my clothes spotlessly clean, and buy fresh clothes while all my laundry dried. I slept like a log, dreaming of indulging all those luxuries.


Waking refreshed and buoyant, I decided it was ridiculous to continue playing the pauper. I approached the inn-keeper and, offering my expensive camera as surety, asked if he could lend me some money which I would repay as soon as the banks opened at ten and I had cashed my cheque. His generosity had reached its limit.


‘I am not a banker, sir, and will not be lending you money,’ he bristled, and was even more adamant when I pleaded with him. Well damn him then!


I stormed out of the hotel, indignant at his refusal. There had been no question of wearing the boots again, so I was bare-footed, with my festering feet a perfect accompaniment to my putrid clothes, lank oily long hair and untrimmed beard. I must have looked like the original dirty hippy, and certainly felt like it. The same perception apparently was universal, and my appearance earned disdainful expressions from more than a few in the streets, and derisive comments from a pack of toffy private schoolboys who jeered and mocked as I passed. I felt miserable, and hobbled as fast as I could beyond their presence. Well stuff them too; I would hang out at the bank until it opened in an hour or so, and my situation would be remedied. I traipsed up the dusty street, trying to insulate myself from the world around me.


“Hey mister, hey!” I ignored the call, which was clearly directed at me. Putting my head down, I kept walking, wanting to distance myself from more attention. The caller would not be put off though, and I was aware that someone was coming after me. “Hey mister!”


My damaged feet would not permit me to run. I felt a hand on my arm, and turned.


“Hey mister, kya baat hai? What’s the matter?” My questioner was a middle-aged man, apparently a shopkeeper from his clothes and demeanour. His face was kindly, the concern on his face genuinely sympathetic. It melted my resistance, disarmed me. I allowed him to gently herd me over the road to his shop.


It was a very simple provenance shop, open-fronted with bins of grains, a few onions and potatoes, and little else apart from crude shelves behind him sparsely filled with jars of spices and condiments, and a modest range of household necessities such as candles, matches, tooth powder and soaps. He repeated his first question.


“Kya baat hai,” he enquired, indicating my appalling state of dress and injury. My Hindi was far from fluent, but I spoke enough to be able to communicate my situation. Walking in the mountains, incessant rain, blisters, no bank to exchange my traveller’s cheques; the basics of my plight.


He looked at me, brow furrowed. Clearly dubious. He probably thought I was too proud to admit to being destitute. Determined to at least change my immediate circumstance, he reached into one bin, drew out a dried coconut, and gave it to me. Looking at my bare and wounded feet, he tugged my shirt sleeve and led me next door. A shoe seller. A few words from my benefactor, and the proprietor looked through his modest stock, selected his largest pair of rubber flipflops, and fitted them on my feet. Slightly too small, but certainly adequate. Beggars can’t be choosers, as the expression goes.


With my feet now shod, I was guided back to his shop. He filled a small paper bag with dried savouries but, still not satisfied that he had accorded me his civic duty, he opened the cash drawer, took out a twenty rupee note and pressed it into my palm, closing my fingers over it. “Abhi challiye, khaiye, ji. Now go and eat, sir.” I was dismissed, with tears in my eyes and the most appreciative salutations I could offer.


There was only an hour to wait until the bank would open, but I had enough money to pay for a very substantial – almost luxurious – breakfast. I indulged myself gratefully, my mood transformed from self-pity to delighted humility. How exquisitely generous India can be, often all the moreso when we reach rock-bottom.


Relaxed and with my hunger well-sated, I headed to the bank at 10 o’clock, and cashed enough to ensure that I could rest well for a few days and return to my beloved mountains. I purchased pajama-kurta, the local accepted clothing, and apart from my hair and now-bandaged feet, had transformed myself into quite a respectable state. I ate like a maharajah until I was sated. How rich I felt. In fact I felt a sense of guilt, that I had taken money on false pretenses, even though I had done my best to explain that my poverty was very temporary. I returned to the provenance store, determined to return the money which the shopkeeper had pressed on me.


When I sought to give him money for all that he had given me, he stiffened in indignation. Then he looked closely at me, and apparently decided that my intentions were honorable. His manner softened, although he made clear that he was still refusing to take my money.


“Today sir, the beggars will do well, yes?” 


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