2006. The year I came to Hyderabad. I was told by seniors about the Sundays in Koti (Old City) where a sale of old books happen on the streets. All the booklovers of Hyderabad can be seen on the Koti-Abids road, bargaining with the street vendors, for books crossing every available subject on this wretched planet. The first time I saw this magnificent sight, I had a heart attack. I am forever having a problem with crowds… my reflex actions go numb and I become as smart as a troll. As a child, I used to throw a fit when taken to heavily crowded places. Nevertheless, I got involved in this war for books because I was a student on a limited budget and could never afford books beyond a limit. The used-books market in the Old City streets became my haven on Sundays.
My visits where reduced to two a month and I was very careful about the money I used to spend in those streets. It was during one of those days that I started noticing a beggar on that street. He used to sit on a wooden chair carefully placed to not obstruct those who walk through the pavements. He was usually seen on a stretch between the Reebok Store and the Santosh Theatre in the Abids road, Hyderabad’s primary shopping space before all these malls started filling every empty space in Hi-Tec city. Where I came from (a small and peaceful township) beggars were a rarity and my occasional sense of richness used to make me give them a coin or two. Hyderabad was a whole new ball game. As soon as you get out of a cab in front of a famous restaurant or a theatre, an armada of beggars will cover your flanks with extended hands and plates… This man, however, was different. His left leg was affected by elephantiasis and he wore nice clothes. If you do not notice his legs, you wouldn’t say that he was there for begging. Actually, I am wrong. He never begged as far as I noticed. He just sat there, looking at those who hurriedly walked past him. He was handsome, (reminded me of actor Sanjay Dutt, in his forties) somewhere between fifty and sixty and had a piercing look. I took an interest in him, because he sat not so far from a pavement bookstall, where I was a regular visitor.
I started giving him 5/10 bucks according to financial conditions. He would just look up at me and not say anything. I didn’t expect him to say anything either. It continued for months and we became familiar with each other except for the fact that we never uttered a word to each other. I was getting more and more intrigued by this man, who appeared a bit regal, except for the fact that he was sitting on a pavement on the entrance to a chaotic Old City. There was another place I regularly visited; a restaurant right across the street where they serve nice Irani chai and biscuits. That was the place where I’d go after my book-hunting. I’d relax there and go through the pack of books I bought from the streets. The waiter there was called Rahim, someone I befriended over the months of my Old City experiences. One day, I asked Rahim about this man, who could be seen through the glass window of the restaurant. Rahim took a look and turned to me.
‘You are asking about Mastan Chacha?’
‘That’s his name?’
‘He looks different from other beggars.’ I blurted out in English.
Now, our medium for this occasional exchanges was English. My Hindi was so bad in 2006, that if I spoke it, I was afraid they’d take it as a personal attempt from my part to rape their language. Rahim goes to college and spoke English without many disturbances and also in a way where the stereotypes (of Indian storekeepers) in English films did. Anyway, he got really offended when I called ‘Mastan Chacha’ a beggar.
‘You never call him a beggar!’
‘Sorry… my mistake. He sits there and I give him money every time I come here.’ I said.
‘Okay, Manu Bhai. He sitting there for 15 years. We don’t call him beggar. He was a rich businessman in Old City. See the disease on his legs. Needed a lot of money.’ Rahim pointed through the window.
‘Okay, that’s bad.’
‘Wife left him. Went with his friend. Take away all his money!’ Rahim extended his hands in an exasperated motion.
‘Yeah. Bad woman. He came to the streets. We give him food.’ Rahim pointed at his Uncle, sitting behind the counter. Rahim’s father owned this restaurant and his uncle ran it. Apparently, there way of fighting the injustice that Mastan Chacha faced was to give him free food every day. What I came to know from Rahim was another example of ‘riches to rags’ story. I continued to give Mastan chacha money whenever I visited Abids street. These days, I don’t go there. I seldom buy used books because I got into the habit of flipkarting books to my home. My visits to Abids are no longer peaceful because I try and find my way through the traffic, fighting other motorists to find my destination. However, the last time I saw Mastan Chacha was 6-7 months ago, when I went to Abids to fix an error on my bank statement.
I parked where I could and then walked to the Federal Bank. After an hour, I was walking back towards my vehicle and remembered about Mastan Chacha and took a small detour to check if he was still there. To my happiness, I found him sitting at exactly the same place. The Reebok store had been converted into a cloth store and Mastan Chacha had upgraded (or downgraded?) his wooden chair into a plastic one. I walked over to him and gave him some money. He looked up at me. He had clearly aged a bit. But, it seemed to me that he had recognized me. I guess, three years (after the last meeting) and putting on almost 10 kg hadn’t exactly transformed me. For the first time in our five year long strange relationship, he smiled at me and nodded his head.
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