MONEY PLEASE MISTER
I was eating a dosa, a savory pancake with potato filling, in a roadside restaurant, when the little boy came up to me. He smiled at me showing his crooked yellow teeth.
“Money,” begged the boy.
Before I could say a word, the waiter attending the table next to me spoke to the boy in a harsh voice. The boy turned and ran away.
I went back to eating lunch. It was around noon. Never give money to kids, I recalled the words of the tour guide. It could be a begging racket.
India was never a country I longed to visit. Megan dragged me here. Well, that’s not true. I followed her. It was my last effort to save the relationship. Although I tried my best, it didn’t work. I blame yoga for it. Ever since she got into it, she changed. If I ate meat, I had to brush my teeth before kissing her. If it was only that, I could’ve lived with it. She developed an over inflated spiritual ego, and in her eyes I had bad karma to deal with. So when I woke up yesterday and found her gone, it didn’t bother me much.
I decided to enjoy my last few days in this country by myself. It’s a very friendly place if you’re white. I’m not kidding or being racist. It’s just what it is. Indians idolize the whites. They even have skin lightening cremes so that brown people can be a touch fairer. I swear. I’ve seen the commercials on television. Alas, if only they knew about western obsession about tanned skin. Anyway, I’m like a celebrity in this country. Everywhere I go, people stare at me. Subbu, the shopkeeper who sells cigarettes out of a small shack, told me its because of my long blond hair. Last week, I was returning from my morning run when little school kids swarmed around me, and wanted me to sign their notebooks. I tried explaining them that I’m not an actor, but they kept yelling, ‘autograph please.’ I signed a few that day.
I carefully crossed the road. Vehicles do not stop for pedestrians here. Stop signs don’t exist, and yield signs are unheard of, but somehow people still drive. The little boy appeared in front of me with his hand out begging for money. He was waiting for me behind the vegetable vendor stall.
The boy nodded with an innocent smile on his face.
“Mister, please. Money.”
“I am not giving you any money, but I can buy you food if you’re hungry.”
The boy gave me a blank look. I realized he couldn’t understand English much.
“Food?” I asked as I pointed to my mouth and then to my stomach. The boy immediately understood and smiled, which lit up his small black eyes, but he shook his head and said, “Money please mister.”
I ignored the boy and started walking.
He followed me, smiled a lot, and occasionally begged.
At the corner of the street I saw a bakery, looked at the boy, and said, “Come on kid.”
I entered the shop and the boy reluctantly followed. The shopkeeper smiled at me and spoke to the boy in a harsh voice in Hindi. The boy was about to run away when I caught hold of his arm and said to the shopkeeper, “He’s with me. Tell him it’s okay to stay. He doesn’t have to leave.”
The shopkeeper was surprised, but did what I told him.
The boy laughed and held on to my hand.
I pointed at a vanilla cake on display and said, “This one?”
He looked at the cake with his mouth half open but didn’t say a word. I pointed at a chocolate cake and said, “This one?”
The boy did not respond.
When I pointed at a mango cake, he took a quick deep breath and looked at me with his shiny black eyes. I bought him the whole mango cake, which he got to go. With four dollars, I had made the kid happy and the shopkeeper amused. The boy said thanks and ran away with the cake.
I walked towards home. On my way, I stopped at a grocery store and bough some grilled chicken. I was about two miles away from home, when I decided to take a short cut. Instead of following my regular way home, I took a narrow back road which passed by a cremation ground, cut through a small slum community, and ended near my house on the main road.
As I passed the cremation ground, I saw black fumes go high up in the air. Flowers were scattered near the entrance to the ground and the air smelled sweet. I peeked in to see a crowd mourning around the fire. It was the only fire I saw in my two months in the country. I walked on. When I reached the slum, an uneasiness swept over me. Maybe it was due to the unpleasant stench from the open sewer I could smell, or the extreme poverty I could see. I slowed down when I heard a familiar voice. The kids voice. It came from the bright green house. It wasn’t a house really. Just four walls with a tin roof. The front door was open.
As I was about to reach the house, the boy came running out of the front door, and running after him was a mad man, and running behind them was a woman. I saw blood dripping down the boy’s nose. He saw me, smiled, and clung to my leg like a little monkey. Blood on my jeans. The mad man stopped.
“What’s going on here? Did you hit this kid?”
Paying no attention to me, the mad man grabbed the boy’s arm and tried to pull him away. I smelled the alcohol. He would have succeeded had I not pushed him away. He fell down on the ground. The boy hid behind me.
“Keep your hands off. I’m calling the police if you don’t stop.”
“Police?” the mad man growled and then started laughing. He grabbed a rock from the side of the road and stood up. I’m quite sure he threatened me when he waved the stone at me and yelled. He spoke a language I do not know. Neighbors came out and a small crowd began forming.
“Stop it, you drunk fool.” I took a step towards him.
The woman grabbed the mad man’s arm and cried. It infuriated him further. He pushed her away and when she came back seconds later, he slapped her and she fell to the ground.
That’s when I lost it. I ran up to him and punched him in the gut. He dropped the rock. Next, I punched him in the face. He fell flat on ground and winced in pain as he held his stomach with his hands. He started to cry like a dog. The neighbors came to his rescue and stopped me. I could have beaten them all up. Skinny little men. I decided not to. They took me to the police station and him to the hospital.
I was locked up and waited behind the bars for someone to ask me what happened. No one spoke English. After an hour a man came.
“Hello, What happen? Why fighting?” asked the man in a thick accent.
“I saved a kid, a woman, and my own self from a drunk.”
The man looked at me with a dumb face.
“Me constable Ram. English bad. Inspector. English good. He come,” said the man and nodded his head.
I waited another hour before the inspector came.
The inspector sat behind an old wooden desk. I stood on one side. The mad man, his wife, and the little boy stood on the other. The constable stood behind me.
“Mr. Wilson, I’m not aware of how these things work in America,” the inspector said. “Here we try to resolve a conflict before the matter reaches the court. I will be the mediator. You assaulted this man, to which there are many witnesses.”
“He beat the kid up, assaulted that woman, and then threatened me with a rock. I acted in self-defense.”
The inspector asked the woman something in Hindi. She sobbed as she spoke. “She says you assaulted her husband.”
“That’s not true. She’s afraid of him. He beat the kid up.”
The inspector asked the mad man something.
“Mr. Wilson, he says, he was beating him a little to teach him a lesson.” “It’s child abuse.”
“Hardly. We sometimes beat our kids in this country. It’s normal.” The inspector smiled at me after saying that.
“In America, it’s illegal. People end up in jail for stuff like this.”
“Hmmm,” said the inspector as he looked at the mad man and then began to talk to him in Hindi.
Five minutes later, the inspector turned to me and said, “This is what we’ll do. To compensate the damages to this man, you pay him a sum of twenty-thousand rupees.”
“Why should I pay him any money? I acted in self defense.”
“You caused him physical, emotional, and psychological damage by beating him up in front of his family and neighbors. You have to compensate him.”
“He deserved the beating and I want to talk to a lawyer.”
“Mr. Wilson, you don’t want that. If you go to court, there is a possibility the case might drag on for years and you’ll not be able to go home. You’ll be stuck here. Do you know anyone who can post your bail?”
“Today’s Friday. You’ll have to wait till Monday to get a bond agent to post your bail. How would you like to stay in that cell for three nights?”
“I’d rather not.”
“I thought so. We also have no mineral water or filtered water in our station. You might catch a terrible sickness on drinking the tap water.”
“I don’t care about that.”
“You’re a hot headed one. Why are you being so stubborn? I’m trying to help you out here.”
“It’s a matter of principle.”
“Tell me then. What you want? You want to got to court?”
“I’ll pay for the boys education. Private boarding school. I’m not giving his father a dollar. He’ll drink it all.”
“It’ll cost you much more. Are you sure?” “I don’t care.”
“Okay. Let me talk to him.”
The mad man yelled when the inspector told him the deal. It infuriated the inspector. He yelled back louder. The woman sobbed and calmed the mad man. The boy silently smiled at me. I smiled back. The inspector went on a monologue to which the mad man patiently listened. At last, the mad man spoke in Hindi, Theek hai. This time I knew what it meant.
“He agrees,” said the inspector. “You are free to go. Come back tomorrow. We’ll figure out the details of how you’ll take care of the boy’s education, and then you can have your passport back. Good night.”
Yesterday, I met the man who was once the little boy. He looked exactly like his father, but acted nothing like him.
© 2014 Harneet Bajwa All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of these stories without express and written permission from me is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to me with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.