I was in a crowded bus station in Bangalore, before its name was officially changed to ‘Bengaluru’. I had just finished university in Singapore and was doing a South India trip of almost three weeks that would end in Kerala, from where I come.
My first stop on the trip was a town a few hundred kilometres to the north – Hampi. It was 10PM on a Sunday night. I was waiting for my bus for an all-night journey.
Observing the locals for a while, I realised that I stuck out in my attire. I was wearing trekking pants, a round-necked shirt and trekking boots. It was my optimal travelling get-up. My Deuter backpack was essential to all my trips, but it made me feel completely like an alien in Bangalore.
I got a tap on my shoulder.
“You are… scientist?”
An old man was standing next to me.
It was my attire and my backpack, I figured. I looked alien. And I was giving off the ‘aura of intelligence’ by wearing spectacles. And to top it off, I was writing in my notebook.
“I’m just a traveller.”
“What is your language?”
The man looked surprised. “You are Indian? I thought…” he trailed off.
“That I was a foreigner? I live abroad, in Singapore.”
“What do you do?”
“I just graduated from university.”
“I speak a bit of Malayalam. We can talk in Malayalam,” said the old man, in Malayalam.
The conversation then shifted from broken English to broken Malayalam.
“Let me tell you a story,” began the old man.
I raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
“It is a sad story. Very sad,” he continued.
My internal alarm bells had started ringing, but things were getting interesting.
“I used to be a truck driver. There was an accident. The truck was destroyed. I lost everything.”
I had a number of thoughts at this point, some of them quite uncharitable. Did truck drivers own the trucks they drove? Wouldn’t they normally be owned by an investor who gives commissions to the drivers? Why did this guy not have insurance? Insurance is not part of poor people’s culture in India. I didn’t even know if it was part of the middle class culture. It was idiotic not to have insurance. At this man’s age, I would have expected him to have savings. I felt unsympathetic.
“I’d spent most of my money on my daughter’s wedding.”
Ah. The traditional Indian thing. Getting the daughter married in style. Paying a handsome dowry. Bankrupting oneself in the process. The last requirement of parenthood is performed. The practise of dowry is illegal in India yet widely prevalent and an accepted social norm.
“I couldn’t even ask my son-in-law for help after the accident. He turned out to be a useless sort. He would actually ask me for money even after his wedding.”
I could see that the story was building up to a financial difficulty climax. My alarm went up a pitch.
“I need a favour from you. Can you please give me your address?”
This was unexpected.
“What good is my Singapore address to you?”
He did not reply. Instead he continued with a more fragmented story.
“There was a general in the army who was very kind to me. He was… like a father to me. What position I have reached in life, I have reached because of him.”
He did not look to me as though he was in any position worth speaking of. He must have started off as a really pathetic person to feel that way. He had a general as a father figure and he was still a nobody, asking for the addresses of random strangers in bus stations.
No, I was not a random stranger. I was interesting – a ‘scientist’ and a ‘foreigner’. I had been picked. This cultural immersion had started getting uncomfortable for me. Everything was backfiring for the old man and he didn’t know it yet. He was attempting to build rapport, but everything he said showed me how distant he was from me and how I would never relate to him.
“I am short on money. I haven’t eaten for days.”
The old man choked.
“Do you need water?” I asked him.
I handed him my extra durable Nalgene bottle (that I still use, many years after the events in this story).
He accepted and took a few gulps.
“Can you give me some money so that I can get some food?”
There it was. The agenda was finally out in the open.
I do not give money to strangers unless I’m provided with solicited services. I strictly do not give to beggars. Giving to beggars only encourages begging. The ‘kind’ people who provide to them only exacerbate the problem. I had rational considerations, but here was an old man sitting next to me, going through the trouble of telling me a story, attempting to make me relate to him before he held out his hand. Begging had evolved.
“I’m not giving you any money,” I said to him calmly.
The old man looked surprised. I had listened to his story seemingly with interest, nodded my head at all the right places and had even let him drink from my own bottle.
“I’m not giving you any money.”
The clarity of that statement seemed to hit him. He took a few seconds to focus.
“All your education – it means nothing if you don’t have true education… If you have true education, you will help your fellow men.”
The old man had slipped. He had antagonised me and made the mistake of getting into dialectics. Instinct took over.
“What do you mean by ‘true education’?”
He shrugged it off. I saw that as victory for myself.
“Even if no man finds me, God will find me,” said the man.
This guy was just digging a hole for himself.
“Then God will find you and help you,” I said with a blank face.
Odds were that a randomly picked person anywhere in the world believed in a deity. The man was merely attempting to use whatever faith I might have held to manipulate me. It had backfired.
“Young man, you are going many places. For me, there is only one way to go. I would place my head on the railway tracks.”
The old man was suggesting that he would kill himself. Any remaining sympathy that I may have had was by now replaced with disgust. He was attempting to make me feel guilty over his potential suicide. So what if I gave him money for a meal? He would need another meal a few hours later. Would he find someone else then or would he kill himself?
“I haven’t seen my family in a few days. I need a train ticket to meet them. Can you…?”
“No, I’m not going to help you.”
A bus moved into the bus parking spot near where I sat. It had ‘Hampi’ written in large letters in front.
“I have to go,” I said.
“You really won’t help me?”
I picked up my backpack and walked up to the door of the bus. He followed me there.
“Sir. I will ask you one last time. Will you help me or will you not?”
The old man covered his face and cried. I could not see tears, but then again, I had never in real life seen a grown man cry with his face exposed. I got into the bus and found my seat. When I looked out, he was gone.
What a way to begin a three-week journey! I had not even left the city. What would happen to the old man? Would he die of starvation? Would he actually kill himself? Was he an experienced con man out to make some easy money? That thought had somehow not stuck me before. He could indeed have been a con man.
I then thought about myself. I had let him sit next to me through his story. I had appeared sympathetic until he started making requests. Even then I had given him water to drink. I was absolutely adamant about not parting with money. It was not merely a matter of doing the right thing. I was indeed stingy.
The next question was “Why me?” I had noted before that I was the person who stood out in that bus station. Being a ‘foreigner’, I might have more money to spread around. I might be more gullible to the wiles of the locals than the other locals. The locals would not be interested in hearing stories from random old men.
The bus started moving and I began to relax. I texted a cousin saying, “The adventure has already begun.”
— — — —
Almost two weeks and many sights and characters later, I arrived in Chennai. I had thoroughly enjoyed and exhausted myself so far on the trip. I was again at a bus station waiting for a bus to an uncle’s house.
An old man came and sat next to me.
“What is your language?” he asked.
I shook my head at him and turned away. He waited a few seconds for a positive reaction. Failing to get that, he left.
That’s when I finally smiled to myself.