An Essential Change
An Essential Change9 mins 251 9 mins 251
AN ESSENTIAL CHANGE
Published in Muse India (Jan-Feb 2021)
As my friend and I entered the restaurant, he went straight for the empty two-seater, that was just beside the huge glass window overlooking the street.
But I insisted that we should sit somewhere away from the view, to avoid the inquisitive glances of passersby.
“But you always insist on a seat with a view,” my friend said with a puzzled expression on his face.
Then suddenly his face brightened and with a big laugh said, “Ah! I think you have not forgotten the unpleasant experience that we had here, three years ago.”
I gave a weak smile and nodded. He said with a reassuring smile, “Now, you don’t worry about that. I am a changed man now.”
As we headed for the seat near the window I could not help but recall that rather unpleasant incident.
Though I had been living abroad for the past three decades, somehow, I could not forget the city where I was born and brought up. Despite my busy job schedule, I managed to make a trip here, once every three years. Spending my holidays with my friends and visiting old haunts were the most enjoyable moments of my life.
Like every time, three years back too, I had come on my visit here. And, like every time, I had come to this restaurant with this friend of my mine, for lunch. This place was our favorite hangout since our college days. As we sat down and started reminiscing, we both were transported to the days when we were young and carefree.
We had ordered for Hyderabadi biryani which, by the way, is this restaurant’s specialty. After about a half an hour’s wait, it was served at our table, piping hot. We had just started to take a bite with relish, when we noticed a beggar looking at the food with great longing, through the window.
I put my spoon back on my plate without eating. I felt quite uncomfortable and sorry for the poor man, who seemed to be clearly very hungry. I was about to call the waiter and tell him to give the poor fellow some food on my account when I saw my friend get up and start to shout at the beggar. He started creating such a scene that everyone at the restaurant was now staring at us. The restaurant is situated in an upscale locality and so, the management did not want any incident that might upset their rich patrons. The entire staff along with the manager immediately went outside and pushed and chased away the beggar. After a few moments, everything settled down and the manager and the staff went about their business. The manager came to our table and apologized profusely to us.
My friend, however, continued bickering about how beggars were a menace to this country and that it embarrassed him seeing them, especially when he was with his foreign clients. I told him that things were not so great in developed countries too, which also face problems of the homeless loitering in the streets. But he did not bother to hear me out. He said if he had the authority he would confine all of them in ghettos outside the city.
“I can see that you are still thinking about that ugly incident,” my friend said, seeing my far-away expression. I was jolted back to the present. I did not say anything.
“But as I said earlier, I am not that man now,” he continued.
However, he could sense that I did not look very convinced. So, with a heavy sigh, he said, “We have half an hour before we are served. Meanwhile, let me narrate to you the experience that opened my eyes to the world.”
“It all happened three years ago, on the very same day that we met here. After saying goodbye to you I went to my client’s office that is near this restaurant. We had a marathon meeting that went on for about 4 to 5 hours, but finally, we managed to strike a deal. My client was very happy and he offered me a drink. As we talked, we had quite a few more and continued to chat on various topics, including our future business prospects and so absorbed were we in our discussion that we lost all track of time.
By the time we came out, it was well past midnight. This being a business district the streets are usually deserted after office hours. Anyway, we each had our car and so transport was not a problem. I started driving towards my home which was about 5 kilometers away. I must have driven just a couple of kilometers when suddenly the engine coughed and stopped. I tried the ignition a few times but the car did not budge. I got out and opened the hood and looked in. But not having any idea how the car worked, I gave up.
I looked around but there was not a soul in sight. I knew the chances of finding a mechanic at this time of night were quite impossible. At the same time, a shiver went down my spine as I recalled that this was an area quite notorious for criminal activities. I did not want to linger there and invite trouble. I was not too worried about leaving my car there. However, I had Rupees ten lakhs in cash in my briefcase. It was the advance amount that my client had given me for the deal that I had finalized, that day.
I knew that the nearest police station was only about a 10 to 15 minutes’ walk, but I was nervous and hesitated to walk alone on that deserted road. I knew I would stand out like a sore thumb, wearing an expensive suit and carrying a genuine leather briefcase, a sure way of attracting unsavory elements with no noble intentions.
Just as I was debating what to do, I noticed that I was standing close to a local railway station. I was relieved that here at least some sort of security would be present. People would be there. I would not be alone. The station would have a phone booth, I was sure. As I walked into the station hurriedly, almost sprinting in my fear of being accosted, I felt relief wash over me. I had not been attacked. I was safe. I felt my courage return and thought that now I could call home and ask someone to pick me up. Till that time I could stay in the safety of the station.
As I entered the station, however, to my dismay, I found that the platform was empty. The ticket counter and the office were locked. I looked up and down the platform. The whole station wore a deserted look. Then I remembered that it was a loop line that operated only in the daytime. Fear slowly seemed to creep up on me. More than the empty look, the silence bothered me. I could hear my own heart beating, and to my ears, the sound was deafening. I felt eyes everywhere, watching me. Now I was really and truly frightened. I was all alone. In a railway station. On a deserted platform. And it was dark. As I frantically looked around the deserted platform, my eyes caught sight of a public telephone booth. I went inside and picked up the phone. I was weak with relief when I found it in working condition. But, alas, I did not have a one-rupee coin that was needed to make a call. I had bundles of currency notes on me, but I did not have that much-needed small change of one-rupee coin.
“Oh, God! Where I will get a one-rupee coin”, I cried out in despair. But there was nobody around to hear my cry.
I came out of the booth and looked about desperately, hoping to see if there was anyone around. I went back to the station office and then to the ticket counter when suddenly I sensed some movement behind me. I froze, for I had thought myself alone, and so, thinking I was about to be attacked, I slowly turned around, expecting the worst.
I turned to see that it was the same beggar that we had seen, that afternoon, outside the restaurant. Now, I was scared, and in my fear, I thought that he had followed me and feeling vengeful, might attack me. In abject fear, I started crying and incoherently apologizing to him. The beggar slowly put his hand inside his shabby and shapeless bag. I thought he was going to strike me with some weapon concealed in his bag. Trembling in fear I covered my eyes while clutching my briefcase tightly.
A few seconds must have passed, but to me, it appeared as if it were a lifetime. My eyes were still closed when I heard something metallic fall on the floor. Then there was absolute silence. Slowly I opened my eyes and looked down. Near my feet lay a shining one-rupee coin.
I snatched it up and rushed to the phone booth and called my home. I was relieved when I heard my brother say that he would come immediately with a couple of friends. He asked me not to leave the station.
Greatly relieved, I looked out through the glass pane of the booth. My mind was now filled with enormous gratitude for the beggar. I wanted to thank him and in fact, started thinking about taking him home and giving him a decent job there. But alas, he was nowhere to be seen.
My brother and his friends arrived within ten minutes. I narrated the entire incident to them excitedly. However, we could not find the beggar anywhere in or around the station. It seemed that the man had vanished into thin air.
I could not sleep the entire night as I kept thinking of the kindness of the beggar.
The next morning I went near the same restaurant, where we had first seen the beggar. I thought he would certainly be hanging around there. As I neared the restaurant I saw a small crowd gathered on the footpath. I heard somebody say that some poor old homeless beggar had died due to the severe cold last night.
With my heart thudding, I ran to have a look. To my shock, it was the same man whom I had chased away the previous day from the restaurant. The sadness and regret I felt will remain with me all my life.
From then on, I started believing that everybody on this earth exists for some definite purpose and nobody should be looked down upon just because of his circumstances.
Now, my friend, now do you believe that I have really changed?” he asked as he completed his narrative.
Just then our Hyderabadi biryani arrived and we started to eat with immense enjoyment.
As we finished eating, the waiter brought the bill to my friend. Along with the bill, he brought around a dozen food packets.
“These are for the poor homeless beggars at the corner,” he winked at me.
Now I believed that my friend had really changed.