The drought had lasted longer than anyone anticipated. The land was screaming for its thirst to be quenched. Cracks were appearing in the ground and on people’s faces.
Faqir Hussain’s business was to look at his hands. He lifted them up and wagged them at passers-by. The regulars were kind to him.
Modi the mithaiwala gave him ten; less if his wife was with. And Merchant sahib gave him twenty. On another day he had given him fifty. Jaggu the moneylender was too stingy to give anything. But he always asked him how he was.
Still, the drought was a bad sign. Rain made people’s hearts blossom, like roses. And their hearts dried up with the drought. Tempers flared, and friends bickered like nasty old women. It was the drought that made his hands ache for the feel of water. It was this drought that was making them ignore him on the footpath. Midday sun was burning holes in his bald head. It wasn’t that they did not have any money to give. It was the new footpath hero that they took trouble to notice today. His name was Ali.
Faqir's eyes wandered across to where Ali was perched like the last item of a street-vendors wares. He felt sorry for the boy. He had the face of a hero. A beautiful face. But he had to use his arms to move the piece of wooden board that held his torso. Two stumps pretended to be his legs. And three wheels from a rusted old supermarket trolley made the board mobile.
He was the one stealing the glances and pity from the people. He was the one causing this new drought in Faqir Hussain’s life.
Evening was already throwing a blanket over the land. Not a single coin. Not one rupee also. Faqir knew he would sleep on a feast of yawns. He leaned his back to the vandalised wall behind him. Some young goons had sprayed slogans of Aazadi on the wall. That was their only freedom. Hunger made him sleepy; it was easy to doze off. Until the sound of shouting woke him. The young boy was crying; three men kicked him, screaming for more money. They were Karim Khan’s men. It all made sense. Ali was one of the Lala gang’s victims. Faqir knew why he felt sorry for the boy. He was young and healthy. They must have broken his legs to make him more profitable. People paid for pain. They paid to make their pain go away. Faqir knew this better than the potholes on his bald head. He used the lines; “I will pray for your daughter’s happiness... May you live a long life... May Allah give your family a hundred sons.” And usually it worked. Nobody would refuse to give money if he said those kinds of things. Because what if they didn’t give money and the opposite happened? No one was willing to take chances like that.
But nothing could beat a young boy without legs. The gang knew that. He was their golden goose. Him and so many other children on the footpaths. They were all the dust on the dry pathways. It would take the rains to wash it all away. Rains would remove the drought. Young Ali was being carried off by the goons. Darkness covered the street, and people had moved to the other side to get away from Karim Khan’s men.
A drop of water trickled along the rippled skin on Faqir's head. He reached his hand out to see if it was a dream or a reality. A few more drops collected on his palm. The dry skin drank the water.
He leaned back against the wall. The gush of air from his nostrils slowed down; the pulse in his neck steady. It didn’t matter that the rain was soaking him. A body in that state doesn’t shiver. Sleep is like death. And death is like sleep. Each is a kind of freedom.
Copyright (C) Shafinaaz Hassim 2010
Faqir - name/ direct transl: beggar (as a name refers to humility rather than ostentation.)
mithaiwala - sweetseller
Aazadi - Freedom
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