Mother and son passed this way every morning on the way to school. Past the same shops, the same old buildings and, more or less, the same people. But on that day there was a difference. At the street corner, sat a newcomer, a beggar, bright eyed and alert, most unusual for one of his sort. But for the ugly hump on his back, and his painfully thin chest, comically thrust forward, he would have been like anybody else, well able to take care of himself by working for a living. Perhaps he could still earn his livelihood by working, for he was an intelligent man. Yet, whenever he asked for work, he was denied it because of his appearance. Why should anyone want to employ him when there were many others who looked normal and more suited to the job?
As mother and son approached, he 'salaamed' respectfully and held up his hands for alms. Casually, almost without thinking, the lady pulled out a twenty rupee note from her purse and with barely a glance at the beggar, put it in the tin kept there for charity. Twenty rupees was a large amount to give a beggar. The receiver was impressed and gave another salaam, bigger than the first.
As his mother made her contribution, the child produced from his shirt pocket, a twenty five paise coin. The beggar’s face lit up. He gave the little fellow a huge smile, and was about to receive the coin in cupped hands when the lady stopped her son, pushing his hand down with hers.
“There’s no need”, she said curtly. “I’ve given him enough. He’s a greedy fellow.”
“But Mummy . . .” began her son. She cut him short
“I said there was no need, didn’t I?” and the two of them walked on.
In class, the boy couldn’t help thinking of the beggar, and his thoughts kept returning to that smile. It was as though all the worries of the world had been pushed to one side, to make room for it. It charmed him. He wanted to meet the person again.
During the lunch interval, he slipped out of school and went looking for the beggar. There was nothing wrong in that since there were no roads to cross and no danger from traffic. Yes, there he was sitting on the footpath, his hunched back leaning against a wall. He looked surprised to see the boy. His eyebrows went up and whatever he was thinking about at that moment, gave way to his smile. The boy could not help smiling back.
“When I see you, I feel happy”, said the beggar after a pause. “Why?” enquired the boy. He was at an age when he needed to question the simplest of statements.
“Because I like you”, replied the other.
“Yes, but why?”, persisted the lad. The beggar said without hesitation,
“Because you are a small boy with a big heart”.
“I am not small” exclaimed the youngster, drawing himself up to his full height which, after all, was not very much.
“Oh, very well”, agreed the beggar pleasantly, “but you do have a big heart. You wanted to give me four annas when your mother stopped you . . . remember?”
“My mother says you are a greedy man for wanting my four annas after she gave you all that money this morning. Are you really greedy?” enquired the boy.
“Never!” exclaimed the beggar, making himself appear shocked, without looking at all hurt.
“Then why did you want my four annas after taking mother’s money?” demanded the little fellow, puzzled.
“Why did you want to give it?” countered the beggar. The boy looked even more puzzled. Finally he said:
“Because it made me happy to give it”
“Ah! There”, said the beggar, “you have the answer to why I said you have a big heart, and also why I wanted your four annas, even after your mother gave me twenty whole rupees”.
“Didn’t my mother’s twenty rupees make you happy?” asked the little fellow.
“Not really . . . money is only something useful, you see”, replied the beggar.
“Why doesn’t my mummy’s money make you feel happy, like mine does?” the boy questioned doggedly.
“Because your mummy is not a happy person, and when one is not happy, one cannot make others feel happy”, the beggar explained.
“How do you know my mother is not happy?” pressed the young one.
“When one sits for as long as I do, watching people come and go, one learns a lot about them ; from their expressions, from the way they speak to others, and little things like that”, replied the beggar. “Well, if my mother was not happy to give you twenty rupees, why did she give it?” continued the boy with his questioning.
“Perhaps because she is afraid”, suggested the beggar.
“Afraid of whom?” demanded the boy, “You?”
“No, not me”, said the beggar “she hardly noticed me. She is afraid of herself --- afraid of not being the person she wants to be”
“And what does she want to be?” the interrogation went on.
“She wants to feel safe”, answered the beggar. “Safe from the need for money. The easiest way to do that is to tell oneself one already has plenty and need not fear spending it. So one goes on spending money mindlessly, buying things one doesn’t need, eating and drinking more than is good for one and, yes, occasionally giving a large amount to a poor fellow like me.”
The lad thought it over. “Yes, my mummy is like that”, he agreed. “My daddy keeps asking her why she buys things we don’t really need, and why we have so much food in the house that we have to throw a lot of it away.”
“There you are”, said the beggar. “Now what about the four annas you were going to give me?”
“Here take it, since you say my money means so much to you”, said the boy, and thrust a coin into his companion’s waiting hands.
“Yes, your money especially”, said the beggar with a cheerful grin, and touched the coin to his lips. “It does make me happy to take it from you. And it will make me even more happy to give you this in return . . .” So saying, he lifted up the front of his shirt, and pulled out something from his belt, underneath. Then with a dazzling smile, he handed it over to the boy. The boy looked dazed and confused.
“But I gave you only four annas, and this is a twenty rupee note you have given me. It’s the same one my mother gave you this morning -- I can still smell her perfume on it.”
“I’d call it a fair exchange, wouldn‘t you?” remarked the beggar with a smile and an airy wave of his hand . . . and they parted.