The Need Of The Giver

The big X painted on the back of the last coach of the train disappeared into the morning fog as it wound past the curve. I stood waving my hand as I imagined my parents settling down to the 7-hour journey to our hometown in the foothills. The platform was now almost empty, and my arm that had nothing left to wave had dropped to my side. The out-of-job coolies were walking past me towards more promising platforms as I too turned back to head to the parking lot to pick the car and return home and from there to a regular day at work. The morning air still had a nip as the winters were taking their leave reluctantly, much like the shrouds of some of the sleeping forms at the railway station who still held onto the ends of the sheets.

On my way out I passed a tea kiosk and stopped for a mug-full. My one hand gripping the paper cup to take in the warmth, I reached for some change with the other in my pocket. As I brought out a few coins to pay for the tea, something nudged me on the elbow. It was an old woman in a dirty saree and a dirty rag of a shawl drawn tightly around her. She had timed her entry to perfection, doubtlessly waiting in my blind spot for the time I would have money in my hand. Her eyes kept flitting from the coins in my one hand to the tea in the other. I was one with her eyes in my dilemma. Should I part with some money or buy her a tea? Finally, I ordered a tea and a pack of biscuits for her. As the warm cup passed from the chaiwalla to her hands, her lips broke into a toothless smile. And suddenly I remembered the face. It wasn’t less than five years, or even six, that I had met her last at a bus-stop in a small town in the mountains, some 250 kilometers from here. And like this meeting, that meeting had been brief too. Lasted some 3 or 4 minutes. And the context was no different. An old woman selling the idea of charity to someone who had the money to spare, giving time to the one holding the pennies to look for the right argument on her behalf.

In the present, she was about to shuffle off with her tea in one hand and the biscuits safely tucked inside a cloth bag around her shoulder and under her shawl. When I asked her to stop for a minute. Her eyes lit up and she turned with the same smile I remembered. I had never spoken to someone with whom my transactions are limited to dropping a coin or rupee in their hands and hearing them bless me with the riches of the world. But I spoke, asking her if she remembered me. The woman kept smiling her silly smile, hoping there was more to this conversation than just words. I tried to take her back over those years to that small bus-stand on a winter night with stray words like Rishikesh, bus-ticket, money, saree. But that didn’t help. In between she had finished her tea but clung onto the cup, even after draining it of the last drop. I bought her another and decided to detail out the events to help her remember.

On my way back from the mountains from a trip I had gone to all alone, I finally boarded the bus on the last leg of journey that would take me back to the city. There was only one light-bulb on in the bus near the door, under which the bus-conductor was making tickets as passengers trickled in. The bus wouldn’t move till it was at least half full. I couldn’t care less, as I let my tired form slouch on the seat and pulled my jacket’s hood close over my head and ears to shut out the cold and the noises. But soon a pleading voice of a woman that wouldn’t go started to form a constant background in my immediate surroundings. The conductor was arguing with someone and I wished they’d settle their differences before boarding the bus. But as the conductor’s voice got louder, I was forced to look up. An old beggar-woman in rags with a bundle of her clothes was sitting on the floor of the bus and kept pleading for a free ride. The conductor, who had otherwise a cheerful sort of a look, was not going to allow it, not on his bus. Short of dragging the woman down, he was doing everything in his power to get her off. In between, the conversation would cease whenever a passenger came in. The conductor would get busy collecting the fare, counting the change, making entry in the ticket book. And all along explaining his stand to the newcomers. He had nothing against poor, old women. But he was doing a job and he wasn’t going to be penalised for allowing a ticketless traveller. The checking staff was pretty active these days, and they might accuse him of taking half the fare and pocketing it.

When the bus roared to life as the driver got in and started to warm the engine, the desperation was clear in both the woman’s and the conductor’s voice. Each knew that it was only a matter of minutes when a decision would be forced on them and one of them would end up losing the battle. It was when some impatient passenger suggested she be forced down to avoid delay that I got up and offered to pay for her ticket. The cost wasn’t much, on this ordinary bus that made more noise than the sugar mills it ran past on its journey. It was the only sort of bus you got there. So it wasn’t much of an offer. And the conductor was any way looking for a better way out of this and looked far more relieved than the woman. But before he could take hold of the currency note that I held out, the woman gently grasped it from my hand and smiled. The same smile. And as she slowly pulled it towards her, unsure if it was hers yet, she assured me that she would get to the city by other means. Maybe she would take the train. Nobody ever asked for tickets on the train. And if they ever did, they couldn’t offload them before the next station. From where she’d board the next train. And sure as the morning, she’d be there in a day or two. And could she then keep the money as I was anyway parting with it, and use it buy a saree for herself? She had long wanted one and she had seen one that came for almost this amount. By now the note was firmly within her grasp, close to her bosom. Only her eyes were on me, as were the conductor’s who smiled the smile of a person who had just got off the stage after playing his part and now could watch the drama unfold without having to worry about his role in it.

I smiled back at the old woman and told her she could keep the money and I’d buy her ticket as well. Now assured that the money was hers, she shook her head as she stood up and gathered her stuff around her. As she stepped off the bus, she told me couldn’t take so much from one person. She would not know what to do with the money if she took it, and paying for a ticket was such a waste when she had always travelled without one.

As the door of the bus shut with a bang and it backed off to get out of the bus-stand and onto the highway past the sleeping town, I caught a last glimpse of her walking in a direction I presumed led to the railway station. I walked past the passengers and their stares, reached my seat and settled down to sleep the distance off.

Now at the railway station, another train had pulled in and the morning sun was out, replacing the easiness of an empty platform on a lazy morning with the rush of a purposeful day. I had recalled the entire incident to the woman, but she kept smiling in her typical way. It made me angry to think that she couldn’t remember the one instance when someone had given her more than anyone else ever did. Or would. But by now her eyes were off me and following her gaze, I saw it resting on the packets of fresh poori-sabzi that the tea-kiosk had now stocked anticipating a big breakfast crowd. I wearily reached out for some more money and bought her a meal, served on a newspaper torn to size, and a plastic bowl.

As I walked out of the station, I knew I would now have to drive past heavier traffic. I had wasted a lot of time, thinking that the gratitude of the needy was far more than the need of the giver.

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