“Good sirs, pretty madams, this is your chance of redeeming your karma. Won’t you drop a couple of annas into this blind man’s bowl? Please sirs, madams, don’t forget to oblige a blind man!” Lakkhu, the blind beggar outside the school would croon his ridiculous ditty as soon as the gates would open after school. He would gaze at passersby with his sightless eyes shielded by goggles as thick as culomnibus clouds. Sometimes he would weep nasally, tears rolling down his pinched cheeks, which set his large ears wagging for some reason.
We would often find him sitting under the peepul tree next to my school in the afternoon during recess and after school would give over. A crouching pathetic figure he would block the entrance gates collecting his booty from exasperated parents who would tire of his whining sooner than the security guards would appear to personally escort him out of the premises. Scorn and derision appeared to vaporize off his swarthy skeletal back.
Where did he go during the evenings, I had inquired of my cousin Roopa who didn’t seem to know either. “Odeon”, Roopa’s older brother Debu da, overhearing, had replied. “We usually see him at the Odeon Cinema, first day first show.”
First day, first show. A popular catchphrase with the boys. That’s how Debu da referred to his mates: the boys.
The sole cinema hall in town to feature English films Odeon had become a trendy conclave for the English speaking elite in town, which included the English speaking school-goers. Debu da and his friends would watch all the English blockbusters there, sometimes at great personal pain and sacrifice. For Saturday Night Fever the tickets had been bought well in advance and college skipped with prior consultation and planning. Disappointed crowds turned away protesting in a crescendo from the ticket windows had been soundly thrashed by the police. Even those who’d managed to buy tickets came under the hail of blows. Debu da, who was working as a part-time reporter, had been quick to brandish his press identity card to a heavily moustachioed firebrand constable who had personally escorted him and his pack inside the hall.
For years afterwards, after he’d retired as editor of a renowned news daily, Debu da would recall the incident with a touch of triumph and pride.
The Odeon cinema, which had been built by the British, was run by a fat Punjabi businessman who’d bought it from its original British owner. His equally fat Punjabi wife, everybody said, reeked of pickles and ghee-soaked parathas. The couple didn’t speak a word of English. Nonetheless, the cinema stood out as a symbol of elitism and snobbery. To be seen at the Odeon was having arrived in society. And if you had public school breeding and were able to flaunt a Doon Club membership card at the same time, you could turn up your nose at anything and get away with it.
A tea vendor, with great wisdom and foresight, had set up his stall outside the cinema hall. His business flourished so that in later years he was able to build a swanky café in the heart of town. His chief clientele included the movie-goers, especially students who were served tea and samosas at delectable concessions. Within a couple of years he was able to hire a team of workers who would serve snacks and beverages inside the hall.
Not far from the stall, in the shade of an overbearing eucalyptus tree, sat Lakkhu the blind bedraggled beggar who didn’t have to exert any real effort in his trade. His earnings, concomitant with the movie’s popularity, would range from ten annas to ten rupees. Debu da and his friends would be generous with their donations, parting with a ten rupee note without any compunction.
“What are you, a millionaire?” my mother would ask. “A ten rupee note is a lot to give away as alms. Don’t you know most of these so-called beggars are actually quite well to do?”
Debu da reasoned differently.
Lakkhu had lost his sight trying to save his family from a fire that had destroyed his home while claiming his wife and three children. His little farm too, had been destroyed. Lakkhu would sob uncontrollably while telling his story. Tears would fall from behind enormous dark glasses covering his visionless eyes. He’d come so far to this hill town in search of work that had eluded him so far due to his handicap. His story, whenever anyone cared to listen, which was more often than one would have realized, would fetch him a windfall.
Debu da and his friends would buy him food whenever possible and become immediate recipients of effusive blessings. “May you get whatever you want in this life good sirs… may you never want for anything… may you get a good government job, and may you have lots of children…” Bored of the litany, the little group would quickly evanesce. What the blind couldn’t see couldn’t hurt them. The pitiable dishevelled figure in pyjamas of indeterminate colour could be seen whimpering to the winds till long afterwards.
After its last screening of the Enter The Dragon the Odeon had closed down for renovations. It re-opened some three weeks later with a screening of Love Story to which the English-speaking populace rushed with frenzied vim. The trailer of a forthcoming movie - Saturday Night Fever - was featured for once. This time even the Hindi-speaking public appeared enthused.
Debu da’s friends had tried thrice to get the tickets without success. I heard him saying that some of his friends had purchased in black. Why are the tickets in black, I had asked of Debu da who said that I was a silly girl who did not need to know about such things.
With two days left to go before the next change, Debu da was getting desperate. That afternoon he and his friends cycled down to the cinema to be greeted by the HOUSE FULL board. Unsure of their next move Debu da and his three friends were accosted by a bearded man wearing a red T-shirt who pointed towards the stall. They stared, rubbed their eyes hard and then stared again. The blind beggar, hobbling in his worn white dhoti, was shouting at the top of his voice, “Balcony tickets for fifty! Any takers?”
A puny adolescent was pushing crisp currency notes into Lakkhu’s charred palms.
“What’s this?” The calloused hands pushed the thick goggles towards the back of the head. “Hey, you’ve handed me twenty. The ticket costs fifty rupees!”
“I thought you couldn’t see, you swine!” The puny adolescent displayed surprising strength as he pushed Lakkhu to the wall next to the samosa vendor’s stall.
The fast thickening crowd was glaring menacingly at Lakkhu. “Let’s beat the stuffing out of this fraud!” a tall man was growling rolling up his sleeves. A thickset woman with grey hair and sharp grey eyes shrieked in perfect English, “Call the police, someone. The rascal has been robbing the public blind,” unmindful of the pun.
The tall man with the rolled-up sleeves advanced towards Lakkhu who hastily gathered his earnings in a little sack and whimpered, “Don’t beat me sir!”
It didn’t sound like Lakkhu’s voice at all, noted Debu da with some relief. “I am simply standing in for the real Lakkhu. He’s inside the hall watching the English movie …”