By Nair Akshay (TIIC Railways)
~ an adaptation derived from an unknown, lost story read years ago.
A beggar was coming down the lonely boulevard just as Mr. Singh; a tall, built up Sikh emerged from his hotel. It was January ’99, cold and misty.
The beggar was blind, carrying the traditional battered cane, and thumping his way before him with a cautious, half-furtive effort of the sightless. He was a short and shaggy man, thick-necked; his coat was greasy about the lapels and pockets, might’ve been donated to him, and his hand splayed over the cane’s crook with a futile sort of clinging. He wore a black pouch slung over his shoulder. Apparently he had something to sell. The air was rich with moisture; clear skies, moon was an almost full and shone on the asphalt. Singh, standing there in front of his hotel and noting the clack-clack approach of the sightless man, felt a sudden and foolish sort of pity for all blind creatures.
Singh was very glad to be alive. A few years ago he had been little more than a skilled laborer; how he was successful, respected, and admired. Insurance. And he had done it alone, unaided, struggling beneath handicaps, he was still young. The winter chill, fresh from its memories of windy cools and long vacant roadways of the early city, could thrill him with eagerness.
He took a step forward just as the tap-tapping blind man passed him by. Quickly the shabby fellow turned.
“Listen, Saheb. Just a minute of your time.”
Singh said, “I’m getting late. I have an appointment. Do you want me to give you something?”
“I’m not a beggar Saheb. You bet I am not. I got a handy little article here” – he fumbled until he could press a small object into Mr. Singh’s hand – “that I sell. 50 rupay. Best cigarette lighter made.”
Mr. Singh stood there, somewhat annoyed and embarrassed. He was a handsome figure with his immaculate gray suit and gray hat and mahogany stick. Of course the man with the cigarette lighters could not see him. . .”But I don’t smoke,” he said.
“Listen. I bet you know plenty people who smoke. Nice little present,” wheedled the man. “And, Saheb, you wouldn’t mind helping a poor guy out?” He clung to Mr. Singh’s sleeve.
Mr. Singh sighed and felt in his vest pocket. He brought out a note and pressed into the man’s hand. “Certainly. I’ll help you out. As you say, I can give it to someone. Maybe the elevator boy would buy.” He hesitated, not wishing to be boorish and inquisitive, even with a blind peddler. “Have you lost your sight entirely?”
The shabby man pocketed the notes. “Fifteen years, Saheb.” Then he added with an insane sort of pride: “Bhopal Gas tragedy ‘84, Saheb. I was one of ‘them’.”
“The Gas Tragedy?” repeated Mr. Singh. “Ah yes, the toxic chemical MIC leakage. The papers haven’t mentioned it for years. But at the same time it was supposed to be one of the greatest disasters in-“
“They’ve all forgot about it.” The fellow shifted his feet wearily. “I tell you, Saheb, a man who was in it can’t forget about it. Last thing I ever saw, everyone in my office going up, hassling from all direction to get something to cover, and save themselves up.”
Mr. Singh coughed, shocked. But the blind peddler was caught up in the array of his one dramatic reminiscence. And also, he was thinking that there might be a few more hundreds in Mr. Singh’s pocket.
“Just think about it, Saheb. There were around 4000 people killed, thousands injured, and over 500 of them lost their eyes. Blind as bats–” He groped forward until his dirty hand rested against Mr. Singh’s coat, almost started yelling. “I tell you, Saheb, it wasn’t anything worse than that in the war. If I had lost my eyes in the war, it would’ve been okay. I would’ve been well taken care of. But I was just a workman, working for what was in it. And I got it. You’re damn right I got it, while the capitalists were making their dough! They were insured, don’t worry about that. They–“
“Insured,” repeated his listener. “Yes. That’s what I sell–”
“You want to know how I lost my eyes, Saheb?” cried the man. “Well, here it is!”
stay tuned to the next month's edition to find out what happens next.