“Los Angeles International Airport.”
Sanath Wickramasinghe threw his suitcase in the back seat of the cab before getting in. “Goodbye, Beverly Hills!” he said under his breath. Seven years had whisked away before he knew it.
He remembered the day he had landed in glittery Los Angeles. March 29, 1997. By that time his elder brother Siddharth was already a renowned hotelier with a home in Beverly Hills and a BMW E36 in his garage. Sanath had gone to study business administration at the Anderson School of Management and to spend his free time helping his brother’s constantly growing hospitality business.
Sanath shared a birthday with his mother: April 12. And exactly on that day in 2004, his father suffered a heart attack. His parents had been on holiday to Chennai.
Chaminda Wickramasinghe had been admitted to Apollo Hospital. Siddharth was far too busy with his business and Sanath was forced to leave so that he may support his father in that hour of crisis. Sanath agreed to travel to India after much internal turmoil. All along the thirteen mile drive to the airport, his mind was restless, distracted. He was barely mindful of how much he ended up paying for the cab.
“Here you go… keep the change!”
He was flying Los Angeles-Tokyo-Singapore-Chennai. After many hours in air and window shopping in three airports, he finally reached Ward #17, Apollo Hospital, Chennai. While his mother broke down upon seeing him, his father merely smiled at him and mumbled “Kohomada?” (How are you?)
The bespectacled man lying in front of him had a four-day old beard. He was only 65 but now looked well past 70. The wrinkles on his face had become more defined since Sanath last saw him. His breathing was laboured. The by-pass surgery had rendered him weak. But he was a strong man within; a firm follower of Buddhist principles. Nothing could shake the sparkle in his eyes and the serenity in his face.
“Sanath, go home and take some rest!”
He felt ashamed that his father displayed such affection and concern whereas he held no such deep feelings towards his parents. While he sat there in contemplation, his father rose in order that he may drive away his son who had just landed after a long journey.
“Where are you going taatthaa? Please. Lie down.”
Sanath stood next to his father’s bed for a few minutes and then slowly began walking towards the door. He then turned back to see his father once again.
His father only said, “Varadak naae!” which was the Sinhalese equivalent of “Don’t worry!”
Sanath’s mother was a Tamil originally from Madras, which was renamed Chennai in 1996. Their family had an ancestral home in Mylapore, an ancient locality of Chennai which could well have been a temple town by itself with the exquisite Kapaleeshwaran Temple that was built in the seventh century by the Pallavas. Even Ptolemy wrote about Mylapore and the temple of Kapaleeshwaran.
Every day, Sanath would make a trip from Mylapore to the hospital which was on Greams Lane. He would come at half past ten in the morning to relieve his mother, who would have spent the previous night, sleepless, at the bedside of her husband.
During his daily morning trip from home to hospital, he noticed the presence of a young beggar boy, sitting near the temple. As people walked in and out of the temple premises, the beggar would occasionally say, “Please give me something to eat.” When someone offered money, the boy would refuse. He only accepted food and upon receiving something, he would chant a benediction hymn.
After a few days of seeing this beggar boy, Sanath grew curious. He went up to the boy and inquired in Tamil: “Why do you beg? A healthy person like you should work and earn his money. You must contribute to society. You people are a menace, I tell you. I’ve seen so many people like you on the streets who create chaos and live on scraps.”
The young boy listened patiently. He knew from Sanath’s accent that he was Sri Lankan. Then the boy stood up and spoke in flawless Sinhalese: “Ovaa denu parahata thamaa sammathayehi pihitaa sita.”
Sanath was shocked by what he had just heard. The boy had repeated a famous Sinhala saying which meant: Make yourself a noble man before advising others.
“What the hell do you mean?”
“We’re all beggars in some way, are we not, so why just me? Aren’t you a beggar also?”
“Don’t we beg the moment we come out of our mother’s womb? We beg for protection, nutrition, care. We go to a guru and beg for knowledge. When a farmer sows the seeds and waits for the rain, he begs for a good crop that season. Every other person begs god to grant some wish or the other – and so often without trying to solve the problem by themselves.”
Sanath was speechless. The boy continued in a voice that sounded like the gurgling of a brook as it gushes over stones. “I am not saying that all of us should turn into beggars, I mean, in the strict sense of the word, you know, because that would be disastrous. I am also not saying that begging is the right thing to do. If everyone started begging, then who would feed them? Who would protect the country in the time of need? Who would teach and enlighten our children? Everyone has a role to play in the world, sir. The important thing here is to know why the person is begging.”
“People beg because they are too lazy to earn their livelihood,” said Sanath in a tone that had mellowed after his initial burst.
“That is not always the case, sir. Sure, it is the most common case but there may be other reasons.”
“Old age. Handicap. When educated and wealthy families can’t take care of old people and disabled, how can you expect uneducated people to do that? They are left to the mercy of society – that is, people like you and me.”
Sanath gave a mild laugh. “But you are a beggar, too.”
“Yes. But am I not a part of society like you? Isn’t it also my responsibility to support these elders and invalids?”
“What do you mean by responsibility?”
“Why do you take care of yourself, sir? Why do you take care of your parents, your brothers and sisters and friends? Why do you bring up your children with affection? It is a similar responsibility that we have for society. Otherwise we will never feel the completeness of living.”
“You’re right. You’re right. But, you know, what bothers me is, why are you, I mean, a person of your learning, begging for a living? What is your motive? Also, tell me, how do you, given your circumstances, fulfil your social responsibility?”
“Who said that social responsibility can be fulfilled only with money?”
“Hmm… fair enough, but you haven’t answered my first question.”
After a couple of moments of hesitation, the boy narrated his story, which Sanath heard in respectful silence. The young boy was a student of the guru Rajamanickyam Velur and studied in a gurukulam, a residential school, in the outskirts of Chennai. Apart from learning the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain scriptures, he had also mastered Tamil, Sanskrit, Sinhalese and Pali.
For the completion of his studies, he had to spend six months on the streets of Chennai, begging for his food and feeding his family. It was quite an ordeal since he had a large family and he was the eldest child.
Sanath’s mouth had dried up. He swallowed hard before resuming his questions. “What about your parents?”
“My father worked as a clerk in a government agency for several years retiring only a few years ago. He doesn’t get pension because he was born in the wrong caste. My mother has always been a housewife.”
“So you have to feed your family?”
“But I have observed that you don’t accept any money.”
“Oh! It’s surprising that you observed so keenly, sir. I don’t accept money simply because I am not supposed to. Even otherwise, the food that I get is usually enough for a meal for my entire family.”
“That’s just one meal a day.”
“It’s enough, sir. After all, we don’t exert ourselves too much.”
“Where do you stay?”
“My ancestry can be traced back to Madurai but, as of now, we stay in a slum behind the temple.”
It was quarter to eleven and Sanath realized he was running late. He phoned the hospital and spoke to his mother. Then, he called for an auto-rickshaw, placed the bag of food and medicines inside it and asked the driver to take it to Apollo Hospital, explaining to him that an elderly lady will be waiting for him just outside the hospital.
As the auto-rickshaw sped away, Sanath walked back to the temple entrance and stood in front of the boy.
“Have you had your meal for today?”
“Not yet, sir.”
“Take me to your home.”
“It is a request.”
Though hesitant, the boy took Sanath to his home. Without wasting a single moment, Sanath shouted loudly to the family members in a theatrical fashion, “Come with me my friends! Follow me!”
He saw two young boys playing a game with sticks inside their small home. They were in rags but they looked smart. As soon as they heard the voice, they ran out of the house and stood beside their elder brother. A small girl was sitting in a corner making a drawing of the temple. After she finished her drawing, she too joined the gang outside. The boy’s parents came to see what the commotion was about. Within a couple of minutes, part-fear and part-curiosity brought them out of their home.
Sanath seemed like the commander of a small army that was marching happily on the by-lanes of Mylapore. After a few minutes, they reached The Regent, a five star hotel that had opened a couple of months earlier. Sanath walked in but a guard stopped his little army at the entrance.
“Shoo! Go out! You people are not allowed into the hotel.”
“I am the one who’s going to pay the bill and I’ll pay it in dollars if you like,” said Sanath in a forced US accent.
“You may go in alone, sir, but we don’t allow beggars into our hotel.”
“Forget it then, I am not interested in this place!” yelled Sanath and turned to walk out when he saw the expression of disappointment on the young girl’s face. The beggar boy whispered something to his sister and she started walking out with the family.
Sanath was confused for a second but recovered. He instructed the family to wait outside the hotel. He walked back in and pumped the waiter for a menu card. He cast a quick glance and then ordered some vegetarian dishes sufficient for seven people. He asked the waiter to have the food packed neatly and to have several paper plates in the parcel. He handed three crisp five hundred-rupee notes to the waiter as he collected the heavy food parcels. When the waiter gave him the change, Sanath clumsily shoved all of it, including the bill, into his trouser pocket. Mission accomplished, he walked out of the place to join his waiting army who had been killing time watching traffic.
The little army walked back to the young boy’s home and Sanath sat down with them to have the meal. He knew that the children had not eaten since the previous day; they would be anxious to eat and at the same time they would feel embarrassed at his presence. So, he rubbed his hands and exclaimed: “Ah! I’m hungry… I don’t know about you, but I’m going to eat well!” hoping that it would help break the ice. Though hungry, the family didn’t seem restless with the food in front of them. The boy’s mother handed one plate to each person and equally distributed the meal, ensuring that Sanath was served first.
Just as Sanath thought he should start, the entire family sat up straight, closed their eyes, folded their hands together and chanted a pre-meal prayer. Though it was a Hindu prayer, it was very similar to a Buddhist hymn that his father had taught him as a child:
Let us rise up and be thankful,
for if we didn’t learn a lot today,
at least we learned a little,
and if we didn’t learn a little,
at least we didn’t get sick,
and if we got sick,
at least we didn’t die;
so, let us all be thankful.
They had the meal in complete silence, something that Sanath had not done in ages. He found a strange joy in that silence. After completing the meal, as he got up, a crumpled piece of paper fell from his trouser pocket on the ground. He didn’t bother picking it up immediately, but did so after washing his hands. It was the bill from The Regent. He had a momentary look at it and before stuffing it back into his pocket, he mentally calculated the amount in US dollars. It was a touch less than what he had coughed up for that cab between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles International Airport.