The Vagabond

We made acquaintance one fine Sunday morning at the Crown Theatre Café while the boys indulged themselves in a good game of soccer across the railway tracks, in Churchill Park. He looked at me with shy interest as he walked in the café nodding his head and I returned his greetings and thus our acquaintance was made. I was a young boy then. It was not difficult to see that the times were bad, his dirty creased pants and T-shirt along with his withered features showed the pallor of poverty. Dark eyed with fair complexion he looked very much under-nourished for a man who was almost European. His spirit seemed low, though not rough, but he was qualified by his heart, sensitive and lively to excess in its affections. He introduced himself to me as ‘Shadow’ and I had not a slightest Idea where he acquired such a hip of a name from... We ran into each other time to time around the town quite frequently. At times I had taken my place among the ragged scanty audience which surrounded him while he tap danced to collect his small earnings. I hoped that our people did not think that it was on account of ‘Shadow’ that I became a regular at Crown Theatre Café.

He evidently had his lunch earlier that day and I had sneaked behind the theatre to have a cigarette with uncle Jaman, the film operator. Shadow made his appearance at the café shaggy and bruised on left eye and cut marks on his legs and arms. The waiter brought him his soft drink and placed the carom board between us. I hated to inquire of his immediate status, instead he inquired about my health, “Chutia kaisa”, to which I gave him the assurance that I was indeed perfectly well. I busied myself in placing the carom pieces in the middle of the board and while doing so I picked up the white striker and the red king that I dropped purposely on the floor, to delay the game. Vinod had been minding his father’s jewelry store while his father was having lunch in the kitchen next door to the cobblers, Deoji Moochi. I thought it would be a splendid idea to have a game with Shadow while I waited for Vinod, and to this gesture; he beamed all over and accepted the challenge. He played very slowly, but with amazing boldness and having played three games together I was still incapable of forming an opinion as to which one of us played the worse.

During the game, the conversation turned on his adventures. Shadow had lots to say in regards to his daily livelihood except how he acquires all the bruises before the end of the day. He was a vagabond, indeed; a half cast man with blind pulse of curiosity. He spent his nights on street corners, arbors, and ground pavilions, under coconut trees and sometimes in the ditches after the night of futile debauchery, and I must add, debauchery for him was liberating, that it created no obligations. He possessed himself and hence debauchery remained his pastime. Little did he know of himself when I inquired about his past, he mentioned to me that his memory fails him at times and other times he would talk about his early days of childhood. He would muse over the times when his parents took him to see his grandmother in the village where he acquired a toy from her, made from bark of a coconut tree. He told me that there were no toys in the village, kids played with leaves and branches. Visit to maternal grandmother became a routine and it continued every year until his grandmother died of old age, and since then he had not seen the village that was located in the mountains. He lost his parents at the very early age and life had not treated him well since. He lived with his aunt who apparently had cancer of uterus. Shadow suffered with Attention Deficit along with hypertension, he did not know what was going on in his little body and mind. He must have sat under every tree in the folds of his disturbed mind thinking if tomorrow will bring a better day. In those days such ailment was unheard of and the symptoms were not recognized. Then the opinionated individuals stamped him as a ‘Useless Bum’. He had often tried to look for work and no one would advance him the opportunity and as the time prolonged he made his life an amusement, a propensity to be saucy and a perverse will to indulge into subversive activities. I bet if one inquired, he definitely did not want to be a street clown either.

He mentioned that to have coca cola is bad for one’s health and to have a beautiful child born, an expecting mother should spend most of her time in the colorful garden, for every flower is a soul blossoming in nature. Poor old sod had passion for kids, he would not ever harm them. He would dance sticking his tongue out to entertain the little ones whenever he saw them. He added, he enjoyed comedy and refused point-blank to discuss politics, he felt the human race have to focus more on the future of the world than to argue on their immediate status symbol. He portrayed himself as learned person, well informed with profound insight, I must admit.

One day as we finished the game of carom, I followed him home from a distance. He disappeared into the alley behind the theatre and appeared again by the public toilet near the market place. At the farther end of the market, Shadow stood with his hands stretched out as if he was begging for mercy and with painful surprise I saw a young hoodlum throw a punch at him. My first impulse was to go up to him and walk him home but the uneasy feeling kept me and I did not move from my place. An onlooker laid a penny in his stretched out hands and he humbly bowed his head to thank him.
Few days after, Vinod Vasram and I happen to be standing in front of Pragji Sidha’s building after a meal with Sidha’s. We saw Shadow climbing the set of stairs that lead to the Lawyer’s office; we drew back and let him get few paces ahead of us. He left the door ajar as he entered the office and stood in front of Jamnadas, the Lawyer. Haggard as he looked in appearance, he collected his courage to ask a question to the legal practitioner.

“Is begging an offence?” he questioned the Solicitor.
“No, not at all,” replied Jamnadas.
“Then in that case, can I have sixpence.”

Jamnadas had no other choice but to give him the silver coin and let him on his way.

A feeble blush spread over Shadows face as he caught sight of us downstairs. We told him we were passing by just as he set foot on the street. We witnessed the glow on his face, an obvious optimistic smile, as he tossed the spinning coin in the air and caught it before it fell to the ground.
During inter-district soccer or Hibiscus Festival no one allowed him pass the gates, he was ostracized; he would peep through the dense hedges. Feeling pity, I would hold him by his shoulder and steer him inside to the Saint John Ambulance van where I volunteered at times to have a free pass, pretending he needed immediate medical attention. Finding his freedom in the arena he looks for an individual who would lend him his habitual fix, a cigarette.
It rained in torrents the day before and we were timely on the street to smell the benign fragrance of the earth after the rain. The next day, the streets were clean and the clear blue sky brought people out on the streets to see the Sugar Festival Parade. Shadow stood under the coconut tree at the entrance of the Churchill Park few feet away from the main gates. I saw him wave to the contestant who had won the title of Miss Sugar and she reciprocated by throwing kisses at him. I went up to him and asked if he knew the lady in the parade, he nodded and said, “She is my step sister.” Shadow stood outside, he did not chance to sneak through the hedges this time; he wanted the day to fulfill his desires. After a while the place became gradually deserted and one beggar after another left the park with little earnings in their pocket. The cold wind blew across his face as he gently got up to head home. I stood there watching him with painful thoughts, I wish I had courage to hug him and share his sorrows. Had I the audacity, I would have carried his grief all day long.

One December Shadow sat leaned against the wooden street lamp pole across from his cousin’s house. The glimmer of coloured light flickered on the window pane and the children danced themselves tired around the decorated Christmas tree. The family had gathered to celebrate the eve with their children. Later at night he walked across the street to the house. Empty handed he stood at the doorstep and as he sat a foot on the threshold, he saw light radiate from the sparkling eyes of the little ones. A two year old lying next to colourful balloons ceased his sobbing as he crawled towards Shadow, he forgot he was hungry and wet, and with a glowing joy he stretches out his arms to welcome the stranger. Shadow took the toddler in his arms and gave him a kiss on his rosy cheek. For a moment he felt free from all the anxiety in the world, he felt something move within him as the little one touched his hair then his eyes then his nose then his lips. He looked into the toddlers eyes and saw his tears in them. He sat in the middle among the children and played with their toys. He seemed to have raised the corner of the mask of unjustified oblivion which concealed his humble existence. Despised and ridiculed by the grown ups, he took leave and went back to his private hell.

I happen to be in the vicinity, taking a closer route home when I saw Shadow walking on the street. I caught up to him and tapped on his shoulder. Without exactly knowing why, I drew back and let him get few paces ahead of me. The cool breeze blew against us and I became red on my face for not having a straight answer from him. I felt like I had taken something from him which I ought to restore to him. Then it dawned upon me that it was Christmas Eve and he may be missing his family. He stopped at the confectioner’s shop for a moment and suddenly entered without hesitation. I took my place in front of the window, along side with few out of town roamers of the street who window shopped knowing that the delicacies were unattainable. I was very much astonished at what I had witnessed; Shadow took a handkerchief from his pocket and untied the end knot and placed few pennies on the counter and pointed out the bottle of candies to the vender. I hardly had time to turn around when I saw him come out of the shop and run towards the old house and disappear through the front door. I waited outside for him then floundered my way to the window where the lights were flickering. I saw the children crouched together around him as he handed them the candies. The door opened and he burst out across the street, waving his hands in the air, gesture to let the children know that his white bag of candies had been emptied.

To have acquaintance with shabbily dressed man, with a bloated disagreeable face was taboo, it bothered some of the people. He was a flotsam destine to nowhere. I did not understand the deprivation of this poor man and the inhuman cruelty. What has he done to deserve this and why he did not deserve to be treated like any other human being; did he drank his wages, that he had stolen a penny from a person standing next to him or does he deserve the misery in which he lived. Why wasn’t he rescued from the ditch that he lay in over night? And to steal from the poor is the wages of sin, I must say. Who inquired his inner feelings and who shared his sorrows and do anyone of us know if he ever had the ‘quiet laughter’ from within his soul.

The vicar had not come to enjoy the break of the dawn in the eastern horizon that morning at Saint Thomas School. We sat in the open hut and took the privilege of entertaining ourselves; we watched the sun showoff her spectrum of delightful colors bathing the skies. A ragged figure stood behind us with outstretched hands, and without a word of his misery, he sat himself down between us and the muscles of our laughter were paralyzed in our blue faces as we saw him. Then there was a gradual cheerful smile among us. What struck me most was the tranquility of the moment. The white silvery waves broke the silence as they lapped against the eroded land while the gentle wind orchestrated the coconut leaves like the dancing candle flame. The crimson horizon at the edge of the calm sea was unfolding, giving birth to the molten sun. He was still sitting there as Vinod and I stood up to leave, we stole a last quick look at his face; a glimmer in his eyes caught mine. His eyes were not the same as I had seen them before, this time they had tears, ready to roll over. He quickly wiped them before they channeled through his wrinkled cheeks then turned towards the blazing horizon and while deep in thought he furrowed his brow and quickly faded into the oblivion. If anyone of you happen to see him please invite him to a game of carom, he would definitely appreciate your kind gesture.  


More by :  Dhiraj Raniga

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