While commuting by the crowded electric train in Madras in the early sixties, I heard an emotion-soaked appeal in a querulous voice: “Respected ladies and gentlemen! Please listen to my tale of suffering. I am an old man, past 60. I have two sons and two daughters. My wife had eloped with the milkman. My children have deserted me. I was discharged from the general hospital last week as incurable. I have nowhere to go. I cannot do any work to earn my livelihood. So, respected ladies and gentlemen, have mercy on this poor old soul and give whatever you can. God bless you.”
With this persuasive appeal in error-free English, he moved through the aisle abutting the rows of seats, a baby food tin in his hand, with a polite, “thank you, thank you”, every time a coin dropped noisily into that tin. My friend Vivek said, “Have you come across anyone begging in English?” I shook my head.
Accustomed only to minstrels bursting into songs with castanets beats, visually challenged derelicts with a slip of a girl at the business end of a white cane, and those selling police whistles, stove pins, iron bangles and so forth, such an alms-seeker was an eye-catching novelty. “Some say he was once a butler of a Britisher in Ooty. And was kicked out for raiding his loaded liquor cabinet.”
He did not appear for some time, perhaps due to a change in his beat, but I heard his voice again, one late evening. “Respected ladies and gentleman, please listen to my tale of suffering…” There he was with the same template of appeal with not a word changed, like a recorded text. I got down at Guindy with Vivek. As we descended the staircase, Vivek stopped me.
“Look there,” he pointed to a corner near the cycle stand. He was there, the one who unburdened his woes on “respected ladies and gentlemen”. He was surreptitiously giving a roll of currencies to a middle-aged man. Vivek, who has an ear to the ground, said, “I found out he is the Shylock of Guindy, lending money principally to racegoers to bet on horses.
His interest is heavy, since there is no collateral.” He continued: “He takes his ‘respected ladies and gentlemen’ for a ride with his concocted sob story, whereas the colts and fillies that habitually take the punters for a ride, animals though with one sense short, may at times out of pity win for them a tidy sum—or even a jackpot!”