The Beggar of Sheelampur

Beggar of Sheelampur by Anita Kapoor and Pragati Kapoor

Just like the ‘sins’, the virtues of a father too goes down to the son. A beautiful inter-generational story set in India about old instances and its impact on the future generations. Originally published on The Fiction Project.

My first thought upon reaching Sheelampur, my ancestral home, was that of anticipation. Myths and traditions associated with the village of Sheelampur that had been related to me by my father had always fired my boyish imagination. My father often told me various incidents of his childhood days in that village, and I always used to pester him to take me on a holiday to Sheelampur. What I was not aware of at that time (being only eleven years old) was that my father had rebelled against my grandparents for reasons I was still not sure of and had run away to Bombay to earn his own living independently. After that, he had not so much as even written to his parents for the next five years or so. But then, for how long could he fool himself into believing that he had forgotten his parents? The flame of love rekindled in his heart and he started writing letters to them. His father never replied but his mother, barely literate, always managed to scribble a few lines of love and blessings.

It was upon receiving the news of my grandfather’s illness that my father decided to turn his footsteps homewards once again. For me, it was my long time wish granted, because to me my grandfather was a complete stranger. I did not even so much as recognize him, so that left no scope of love for him blossoming in my heart.

Our house in the village was a sprawling bungalow with fields all around it. I learned the unique skill of climbing trees from Ram – a farmer’s son. He had laughed at me when I had first attempted to climb a tree and had failed but who could explain to him that living in a place like Bombay (where it is impossible to plant a tree in your apartment and learn how to climb it) robs one of the opportunities of going so close to nature.

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I had gone to the local temple with my grandmother, who was a daily visitor to the sacred shrine. I was standing outside while my grandmother went in to perform her religious duties. It was then that I heard faint but extremely melodious, strains of a very old song. I looked around to trace the source of the sound. The music continued to play, and soon, my curiosity getting the better of me, I walked around the temple. As I turned the corner, I came upon a very, very, old man playing an instrument that was new to me. I went close to him, and to my horror, saw that he was blind. A passerby came up from behind and offering the beggar a small chunk of bread said, ’Here, take this.’

The beggar stretched out his hands and enfolding the bread in them said, ‘May God bless you and your children. May you prosper all your life; may you always be happy.’

He spoke in vain. The man had long since walked away in a huff without even accepting the blessings. He started playing the instrument again.

I was so mesmerized that I sat down and listened till my grandmother came along and, throwing some ‘prasada’ in the beggar’s bowl told me to walk back home with her. I reluctantly followed but made it a point to accompany her the next day also.

The Beggar of Sheelampur

One day, about four days after I had first seen him, I offered him a twenty-five paisa coin but he refused to say that he only accepted food from the various philanthropists (like my grandmother) who cared to give him anything. Money, he said, was of no use to him because he could not go around buying things for himself being so old, helpless, and of course, blind. That was the first time I experienced misery at such close quarters. I developed a unique kinship for the frail, old man. It was pity tinged with admiration at his ability to play that instrument in such an adept manner. Whatever it was, I felt drawn towards him and I kept going to the temple every evening with my grandmother in the hope of seeing him and listening to the melodies he played.

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On one of my visits, I summoned up courage and asked him the name of the instrument that he played. He told me it was called an ‘ektara’ (meaning a single-stringed instrument). The music he played that day left me spellbound. Gathering my courage and drawing in a deep breath I said, ‘Will you give it to me, please?’

He could not see the earnest look on my face otherwise he would have consented without delay. Seeing the horrified look on his face, I quickly added,’ I’ll give you anything in return for it.’

However, he firmly refused to say that it was his only possession in the world, and the sole thing he could call his own.

‘Where did you get it from, baba?’ I asked.

‘I made it myself’, he said, a smile of pride shooting across his face.

‘You couldn’t possibly—— you couldn’t make it for me now, could you?” I urged, still seeing a faint gleam of hope.

At this point, my grandmother arrived and I returned home with her.

The next I went back to know his reply. After many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ he said that he would try, provided I got him a box of tin, a strip of wood, a thick metallic string, and a few nails. I dashed off eagerly to procure the necessary paraphernalia. With the help of the boy Ram, who had by then become my friend, I was able to get the items and ran back to ‘baba’. He fingered the tin and all and asked me to take my ‘ektara’ the following day. I went back home joyfully. That whole day I little nothing but think about it. How I longed to toy with it and to play those melodious tunes!

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The next day it rained heavily and my grandmother decided not to go to the temple. I couldn’t move out of the house. I felt frustrated and depressed and shouted at my mother when she tried to humor me by telling me folk tales. At last, I couldn’t bear it any longer and ran out of the house, not caring for the consequences, not thinking about what would happen when I would return. I reached the temple and found the mendicant sitting in the rain, tightening the string of my ‘ektara’. I was touched. For a moment I could neither move nor speak. Then a tiny drop of tear flowed down my cheek. I brushed it off along with the water with which my face was drenched, fooling myself that the singular drop was also a raindrop from the skies.

I went up to ‘baba’ and said, ‘Why don’t you go and sit inside the temple?’

‘There’s nobody to take me there,” he replied.

‘Besides,” he went on, shivering a little, “I am very much used to sudden changes in weather.” His clothes, if they could be called so, were very torn and very old, barely covering his body. 

“Why have you come in such a torrential downpour? You may fall sick. You could have come tomorrow and taken the ‘ektara’. I wouldn’t have run away with it,” he said.

“If you, being so old, can bear this rain, then I think that I being only eleven years old, can surely do so,” I replied.

He handed me the instrument and told me, harshly, to rush back home, as otherwise my family members would get worried. I held the ‘ektara’ tightly and another tear rolled down my cheek. This time even I accepted the fact that I was crying and I wept silently, standing in the rain, the ‘baba’ sitting before me. I could not bear to see him, whom I had grown to love and respect, in such a pitiable condition. I quickly turned my face away and sped back home, not even waiting to thank him.

On reaching home I was questioned and reprimanded but with a touch of concern at my being drenched from head to toe. I, of course, did not let out my secret. My family members gave up the attempt to find out where I had gone, after trying, in vain, for some time. I hid the ‘ektara’ in a secure place. That night my father announced that we were returning home the next day, my grandfather having recovered and my father having completely reconciled with his parents.

The next day, early in the morning, a ‘tonga’ was hired to take us to the railway station. Ram came to say goodbye to me and after he was gone, I produced the ‘ektara’ before my parents saying that Ram had presented it to me as a token of our friendship. The ‘tonga’ moved away. I cried silently while pretending to be asleep and presently we had boarded the train and Sheelampur was left far behind. All through the journey, I played with the ‘ektara’, trying to produce the enchanting tunes which had left me so spellbound.

The Beggar of Sheelampur
I forgot all about the ‘Ektara’

In Bombay, other things began to occupy my mind. In due course of time, I forgot all about the ‘ektara’. My grandparents sold all their land in Sheelampur and came to live with us in the city. The village was forgotten.

Time flew and I grew up to be a responsible man in the world. I was married to a beautiful and charming young lady who gave me my most prized possession- a son. Those days were spent in a constant state of bliss- but for how long can you pin down happiness in your home? It fled away in search of greener pastures.

My wife died in childbirth taking my second, unborn child. I decided to move to another place, where my memories would not haunt me all the time- I bought a flat in a high-rise apartment block- and there was I, helping the professional packers, discarding some stuff that I considered to be of no utility. Suddenly, I heard the strumming of a musical string- and there was my little son, fiddling with the dusty musical instrument!

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‘Just see, Papa, what I found!’ His eyes were shining with delight! That was the beginning of my son’s love affair with music and singing. That moment, I stumbled upon his latent talent as I saw the packers put aside their work one by one to listen to his melodious voice as he sang a devotional song I had often heard his mother humming.

Later, I related to him the story of the ‘ektara’. My son took seriously his training in music, instrumental as well as vocal, along with his studies.

The loud applause reverberating in the auditorium filled my heart with pride.
The loud applause reverberating in the auditorium filled my heart with pride.

The loud applause reverberating in the auditorium filled my heart with pride. I saw my son, tall and handsome, walk up to the stage to receive his first award. I heard him say a few words and then heard him call me up to the stage- “I attribute my success to my papa, who gave me his childhood toy — that changed my life—that ‘ektara’ gave me inspiration when I first handled it- and the musical notes filled me with bliss I had never felt before. I realized that music was to be my life- then and always—that ‘ektara’ occupies a place of pride among the other numerous musical instruments I now own. Thank you, Papa.”

What could I say? – I just blessed him by placing a loving hand on his bowed –down the head– and silently uttered-“Thank you, baba, God bless you wherever you are!”


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