“Bloody rats! Curse you! Curse you to your death!”, he shouted in anger.
The rats felt the wrath for a while, as they hid themselves behind the sack but as soon as he quieted, rats began running all over the sack once again, passing in and out of the sack through the several holes they created. He tried his best to fill the gaping holes with more rags, but rats had developed a taste for the rags. Rags were bitten away sooner than they were put to shut the gaps.
It was mid winter and in northern India. Two seasons are considered the worse by the homeless citizens of the country. Mid-winter, when it is chilly enough to freeze anybody to death and mid-summer when heat waves across northern India mercilessly takes uncountable lives. There was a time when such news used to become the head lines of the daily news, but as India prospered and wealth started pouring in, the news agencies started to give more importance to the coverage of political scams, international visits of the various Head of State personnel and sports. Common man was left behind and he learned to live thinking of himself as nothing more than an instrument to be used by political parties once in every five years.
He, on the other hand, didn’t have to vote either. He was a nobody in a country with a population of 1.2 billion souls. It generally happens, nobodies become somebodies, its nature’s way of telling everybody that miracles happen, and that there is a power higher than all the names people have given to IT or bigger than all the monuments people have created for IT. That power speaks to us through signs, because the language of signs is the oldest language mankind has ever known and which is still pretty much in use. He was not a person who could read signs, he had never taken his thoughts up to that level. He never needed to. All he cared about was three meals a day, which he would beg for at various places around the city, at the bus stand, outside a cinema hall or in a community park, where college students often came to have some quiet moments in privacy.
Privacy is very hard to achieve. A gadget as small as a mobile handset can create so much of hindrance in someone’s privacy. But, he didn’t have to worry about a mobile which could interrupt his privacy. For him, rats were enough. He had found a perfect place to rest after the sun settled to welcome the night and the crowds of people walked towards their homes like birds fly back to their nests after measuring the lengths and breadths of the skies all day. He thought of the world as a funny place. He saw men running after buses to reach work on time, women fighting with auto rickshaw drivers for amounts as small as five rupees. He remembered he once received a torn five rupee note and he had given it to another beggar, who said he will sell the note for three rupees to a person who was always looking for old, dirty and torn notes. He wondered what did that person do with an unusable currency note? After a while, he stopped giving useless currency notes to anyone and began collecting them.
With time, he collected so many notes that it was hard for him to keep them with him all the time, so he picked up an old sack outside a grain merchant shop. The sack was very big, he could put several times more money in it than he currently possessed. Days became weeks, months and years, he traveled many cities, begged at countless places and lived well. Begging is prosperous to the shameless and to those who live life one day at a time. Beggars are the people who have no plan for the future, they live in the present. May be they think about their next meal sometimes, that too if they are having a bad day. But in India, no beggar has a bad day. We, Indians, are generous enough to shed few coins to a beggar which helps them get drunk every evening and live life king size, whereas the working class cannot afford to have a drink everyday. Beggars live lavishly in India, so was he.
In few years, he had a bag full of unusable currency notes, then he had two, then another one filled up. He decided to find a place to settle down. He traveled to a bigger city, where he would see different faces to beg from everyday. He roamed around the city for days before settling himself near the river, at the start of the bridge. He prepared a temporary tent for himself by collecting pieces of cloth and some cardboards. Life was beginning to get better, He had something he could call home. Below the bridge flowed a river, which was dried up in winters because there was no rain in the mountains and the only flow of water the river had was that of the city waste. It stunk badly and it was exactly the best place for him to settle down. Anyone would drop a coin if he insisted by gripping the person’s leg, not many could withstand the stink of that particular place.
The city drain that flowed below the bridge contained human waste and left over food mixed together. Humans can differentiate between the two but rats cannot and they don’t even need to. In few days, the rats, who were living below the bridge, came to know the existence of someone over the bridge. One rat came, another followed and then another and slowly there were rats all over his sacks, biting them, leaking notes from everywhere, making him helpless. He couldn’t carry those sacks with him, notes just wouldn’t stay inside and he had no way to get rid of rats. Firstly, he cursed himself for his decision of settling at a dirty place like that, secondly he cursed the rats for not minding their own business.
Add to it the chill of winters in Northern India, everything was going wrong for him. He had three bags full of unusable money, he did not know what to do with it, rats were not letting him sleep peacefully during night and it was so cold that he was doubtful every evening about surviving another night without a proper shelter. He thought of moving to a better city, where the weather was less cold. He decided he would travel to Southern India, he had heard it rained heavily over there but the weather remained good and it never gets as cold as this city. Before he could plan out his journey to Southern India, the unimaginable happened, it rained. He covered his temporary home with plastic sheets to stop water from coming in. But rain did cause one damage, there were less people on roads. Nobody to beg from. He wouldn’t even dare to go out in the rain. Life, no matter how it is, is dear to everyone. Everybody wants to live, in whatever condition. Nobody wants to die, ever.
Many days passed and it kept raining periodically. The river was flooded and rats would not go out. He would sit all day while it rained, listening to rain drops and looking at rats, some shivering, some dead. He would throw the dead ones into the river out as soon as he found one. He hoped they will all die soon, or that it stops raining so he can leave. He would beg when it didn’t rain, but he was not pitied upon anymore. The roads in the city were no less than swimming pools and people had lot to worry about than a beggar. The rains had to stop if he had to survive.
One morning, he woke up with the sun shining directly into his eyes. There were less clouds in the sky but the chill was unbearable, he was shivering and he had fever as well. He smiled at the sun and took out his dampened sacks out for drying them. As the day passed, few street dogs collected near the sacks and continuously smelled it. They began to shuffle the bags and picked out few dead rats. One could hear their growls from a distance as the dogs tried to snatch the dead rats from each other. He was concerned about the money in the sacks. Dogs were tearing the bags apart and he was collecting all the notes that lay scattered on the road. Unable to deal with the situation, he picked up few stones and hurled at the dogs with brutal force. He shrieked at the dogs which further frightened them. Few people stopped to see what was happening. It was very confusing. There were torn sacks, currency notes, dead rats, lots of dogs and a man pushing the dogs away.
Dogs are not humans, they can never understand anything else other than food. The one who provides them food is a good man, the one who denies is bad. It has always been that simple for animals, only humans need reasoning. The dogs began to attack him and it was his turn to save himself. He was scared. He went to the roadside cigarette stall and picked up a match box. He collected the sacks, dead rats and all the money he had and set it on fire. As the fire grew stronger, the dogs strayed away from it, but he stood closer. He saw his money burning, his efforts of years being wasted in fire but he enjoyed the warmth the fire was giving him. He sat there for a while, he did not want this feeling to end, there was no chill of the winter as long as the fire was there. Then it began to diminish, he removed his rugged sweater and threw it into the fire, then his remaining clothes. Then he dismantled his home and burned it too. He stood naked beside the fire, which was lit beside the road, which was beside his home covered with the plastic sheets, which was beside the bridge, which was over the river, which was overflowing. He sat near the fire as it was burning furiously. He watched his each and every possession turn into ashes. Now it was his time.
He had survived the worst to see the best. He had survived the chill of the winters of northern India, the dampness and heaviness of the winter rains, only then he was able to feel warm because of the fire and the warmth was good. Warmth made him feel alive, he hadn’t felt this good in ages. He wanted to possess the warmth forever, so he stood up and walked into the fire. First, it burned his skin and there was an unbearable heat, a sensation to jump into the chilled river under the bridge to get rid of it. But, it stayed for few minutes only and then he was at peace. As his flesh burned and the heartbeat minimized after reaching its maximum, the fire settled.
The people were shocked to see the incident. Some were recording the videos on their mobiles. Slowly, the crowd dispersed and the dogs came back. Rats were burned beyond eating, but there was enough for them to survive the day.
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