MIDWAY : Begging trends

Prem Thapa

I woke up to a faint voice from my mid-day nap. At the door stood a sadhu: Shanti ke naam pe dedo, he called out. Ever since the staff strength was culled, I was the only one at the sales counter. Unimpressive as the tourist influx was, a visitor was always welcome. I rose from my table, where I was dozing.

Begging has evolved like never before. In this very office, I had sadhus begging in Ram’s name and Allah’s but this was the first time anyone begged in the name of peace. As I walked towards him with a two-rupee coin, I knew him. Lo! He was known to me for years. The first time I met this sadhu was in 1997 when he used to pose for a photo-op with the tourists at Kathmandu Durbar Square in return for anywhere between three to ten dollars per snap.

Price determination then depended upon the nationality of a tourist. The Americans of all did not mind paying ten dollars. His attire and false gravity couldn’t evade the visitors’ attention. With his unkempt knotted hair, ash-smeared body, trident in hand, and a pose that would have had the very Lord blush in envy, dollars poured his way. He spoke English tolerably well and was adamant about one thing — ladies first. The posture of Shanker putting his right hand around the white Parvati seemed anything but divine to me. Those were his heydays - just as mine.

The last time I met him in 2002, he was in a priest’s robe and was known as the Good-Luck Baba. The trident had given way to a colourful flower basket and some aabir. He had then turned to blessing foreigners with a tika. Unlike his earlier photo pose, now he had to criss-cross the streets scouting for empty foreheads. His thumb, resplendant with aabir, would streak down a white forehead at a lightning speed, before the tourist found what he was up to. Too late to turn him down, they almost unfailingly handed him some cash and move on. Now here he was, in his third and probably last metamorphosis. He was in a sadhu’s attire, again with a an ash-smitten forehead and a kamandalu (begging bowl) at hand. He looked weary. I handed him the coin.

He left but not without making me ponder. His vicissitudes were understandable. With the state of emergency and decline in tourist arrival and sagging income, I caught the habit of napping. But as the sadhu walked away, I could understand his predicament. I could understand the transmuted environs, his and mine. But begging in the name of peace, I bet the next catch line will be: Raja-Maobadi ke naam pe dedo!