He didn’t know how long it had been since he took up that permanent seat outside the famed temple. Nor did he know how or why he got there. All that he knew was that the temple was his sole refuge for as long as he could remember.
“Do you believe in God?” I asked him. “Of Course I do, how else would you explain my existence and livelihood over the last sixty years outside his doors?” he said smiling mockingly at me. I had no answer to that and chose to smile back.
His hands were deeply scarred. Ghastly wounds were visible on his legs. All he had was a torn and faded Dhoti and a shawl which by the looks of it had been bitten through by many rats. As my eyes took in all this, he looked at me and said “Sixty years is a long time. Especially outside a single temple. These scars bear testimony to them”. “I don’t quite follow, what are you trying to say Sir?” I asked him with a quizzical expression on my face.
They told him that he was a toddler when he entered the temple premises. The man who left him there was never to be seen again. Pitying the abandoned toddler, the ones outside the temple seeking alms took him in. For a long time, he did nothing but sit on the lap of a woman he didn’t recognize as she spread her hands out, asking for alms from all those who visited the temple. Being the child that he was, he began imitating her and soon enough it caught the attention of all the visitors and a steady source of alms followed. The temple was generous enough with the food that it distributed to them, though more often than not, a scuffle would break out on who got the larger share. However he wasn’t denied anything as he was still a toddler and his survival was essential for their existence.
As years passed, he observed the changing natures of the people around him. Now that he had grown considerably, he no longer sat on her lap but next to her. Yet what surprised him was that he had to now fight for his food. Even if the meal consisted of a meagre banana, he had to be a part of the scuffle and win it to earn his meal. His ‘surrogate mother’ as he liked to call her no longer looked out for him. She had another toddler on her lap doing the honors. So that’s what it was he thought. He had served his purpose in her life and now they were equals. Equals in a practice where they had to compete for the greater share of alms.
It depressed him. Even disgusted him. But there was nothing he could do. The one time he had tried to sneak out of the temple for an alternative means of livelihood, he had been subjected to a terrible thrashing by the police who mistook him to be a miscreant in the regional riots that had made news all over the country. He was carried back to the temple premises on a stretcher of sorts. The thrashing would render him immobile. His body and his spirit, both lay broken.
A few years later, he would know what death was. As his ‘surrogate mother’ collapsed one afternoon, he realized that she would no longer comfort him nor compete with him. Her body was cleared off and the temple premises were cleaned to avoid any malefaction arising due to her untimely death. For all the competition and all the reasons that she had spurned him, her alms lay under the sack on which she used to sit. Only to be fought over by all of them later. Incapable of any of those heroics any more, he watched silently. Even as the ‘value’ of a human life was being divided among all those chose to contest for it.
Food and shelter were the least of his worries he revealed. The temple and its devotees provided enough to keep him alive if not more. More often than not, there seemed to be one or the other occasion which warranted a mass feeding resulting in his stomach getting its fill.
As I listened to him, I couldn’t help myself from asking him “You have been outside this temple for so long, didn’t you ever get a chance to go inside?”
“I did. But it made no difference to me” he said disinterestedly.
“Maybe you lack faith?” I said in an attempt to convince him and myself of my belief in god.
Listening to which, he burst into peals of laughter.
Not knowing what to do or how to respond, I stood up suddenly and walked into the temple premises trying hard to decipher the reason behind that mirthless laughter.
A good forty five minutes later, as I made my way out of the temple, I took out my wallet to give this curious gentleman some money.
“Did you finish your rounds Sir?” he asked. Still with the same mocking expression.
“What are you talking about?” I replied now irritated with his demeanor.
“You didn’t understand what I meant when I said that going inside the temple made no difference to me. While staying outside the doors of the temple for years, I was surrounded by people deemed ‘lesser fortunate’ by the likes of you begging for alms. Yet the one time I did walk into the temple premises, I realized how many more people were ‘lesser fortunate’ judging by their deepest pleas to the God who sits there. We do it outside the premises, you do it inside the premises. Which is why I asked you if you finished your rounds of begging for alms Sir” he said with the same smile.
Too embarrassed by the reality of what he had just expounded, I stood there with my hands now firmly back into my pocket clutching my wallet tightly. In a quandary wondering what kind of alms would this man ever accept? With a half-baked attempt to smile at him, I began walking away, careful not to turn back.
“Don’t clutch on to that wallet too hard Sir, it didn’t do any good to my ‘Surrogate Mother’ ” he had remarked.
His parting words still ring in my ears every time I visit a temple to plead with the Almighty for something or offer alms to anyone we deem ‘Lesser Fortunate’.
As for him, I am sure he sits there and expounds such parables to all who cared to listen.