The lines on the page shackled her thoughts – ‘the mirror tells her the best years of her life have been wasted’. Wasted was how she felt although it was Springtime and she was in the prime of her youth. All around her were families with kids, fathers holding their daughters close, little boys eating ice-cream and running after fat, over-fed pigeons. That was city-life. Everywhere you looked there were blaring contrasts. Pock-marked addicts whose drawn, gaunt faces told their tumultuous stories, fat middle-aged women in cheap tight-fitting clothes that groaned and grimaced over their tired bodies. And there was the beggar who reminded her of the life she left behind and its nagging, looming shadow which she could not shake off or drive away, like a stubborn fly that had landed on her.
Did she believe in simple coincidence? Did fate really leave signals for those with special antennae? Her thoughts reminisced back to the film she saw on the plane with the actor Ricardo Darin. A Chinese man comes into his life – by coincidence – and it so happened that his story and tragic circumstances were in Darin’s little scrap book of strange coincidences, which he methodically collected from all the newspapers he bought daily. The Chinese man was sitting on a boat one day and had just proposed to his future wife when a cow fell from the sky, split his boat and killed his fiancee.
She remembered the homeless man in Lavapies. He was youthful, handsome even. He never solicited anything from passersby. Unlike the others she had seen, there was no sign in cardboard detailing his situation and asking for monetary contributions. There was no cup or bowl with a few coins inside. There was no picture of a family and children to arouse pity and compassion. He was nothing like the gypsies who roamed the underground stations, parks and streets with forms to sign where you could state your name and the amount of cash you were willing to give. They never spoke to you but simply stretched out their arms with a pen and pointed to their sheet. She wondered how this idea had started and whether it really brought in money. It reminded her of the donation sheets she used to get from her high school and how she would pester the neighbours for a small donation. There was always a fund-raising event at her Presbyterian school.
In the bus she was travelling in, she heard the driver tell a passenger that the woman begging at the traffic lights with a new born baby in her arms was pregnant just the week before. The passengers, herself included, were immune to such scenes and shook off the image with indifference. She was no stranger to poorly-clad children selling fruits at the lights or ready to clean your windscreen for a couple of dollars. She remembered the Bobo-shanties with their nuts trays shouting ‘nuts, nuts, nuts’. Yes, indeed, she now thought the society had gone nuts.
The beggar of Lavapies just sat there with his few belongings, sometimes eating food which seemed to have come from one of the many Bangladeshi restaurants which dotted the barrio. She had even heard some Bangladeshis speaking to him in their native tongue and figured that he must have been a paisano, a compatriot. Still, it was odd to see an Indian-looking man in the streets begging. It was more common to see them in groups, babbling contentedly and alert to what was going on around them. Alternatively, they were often seen hustling inside the kebab food outlets, or haggling with passersby to lure them into the empty Indian restaurants. In summer the pavements were packed with tables and menu boards and the scents of curry and basmati rice made her long for home.
She had long decided that it was useless to go back. She faced too much opposition and oppression there. Besides, the crime and kidnapping had spiralled while the government continued to bicker about which ‘outside expert’ they should bring in this time to fix the mess. Of course it shamed her that she really did not know what was going on in her country. This became glaringly obvious when a friend of hers proudly produced a pullout from a renowned British newspaper which featured her new female prime-minister and the positive reviews she had received internationally. She wasn’t even aware there had been elections and that there was now a Hindu female in charge.
No matter how much she wanted to forget about home, though, the whites she met just would not let her. She was immediately asked where she was from and then she was expected to give them tips about the best places to visit, to go diving, hiking, partying and the full works. Of course if there was another White Tourist in the room who knew her country, then her opinion wasn’t solicited anymore. The White Tourist could provide just the information that was required and best of all, he understood what they needed and expected. She quickly realised that it did not really matter where she was from or what answer she gave. In fact, she was continuously tempted to change her origin and invent stories to feed the imagination of her hungry, open, well-travelled acquaintances.
Her thoughts drifted back once more to the beggar in Lavapies and the strange picture he painted sitting there with his container of dhal, rice and vegetables. She passed him everyday while she made her way to the underground and on a few occasions she even met his stare before quickly averting her gaze, ashamed. She knew there was a thin line separating them both and if she lost her job the hardships facing her would be innumerable. Of course she could always call home and ask for help but it shamed her to think she was squeezing more money out of her humble family who had more immediate problems of their own. Her mother was missing most of her teeth and had throat problems while her father had already undergone several operations for an enlarged prostate. Their house was slowly crumbling and each rainy season increased the number of holes in the galvanised roof and the number of pots and pans placed to collect the freely flowing water.
The pigeons living in the roof, their coos and copious piles of shit added to the discomforts her family had to face daily. She would sometimes chuckle at the memory of finding pigeon shit on the clothes she pulled out to wear on mornings.
No, she wouldn’t ask for money back home. She admired the Latin American women she met who all held multiple jobs and sent home monthly payments to help their families. They proudly displayed their success stories and were already planning to buy property, open a store, help their mothers, sisters, cousin and neighbour. She, on the other hand, had been in Europe for eight years and had never sent a penny back home to her family. The money she earned was just enough to pay the rent, buy food and save a little for a trip or two. She felt her life was wasting away but she never mustered the courage to make the decision to go back home. When she was in a good mood, she would look for Shaggy’s ‘Mad mad world’ and blast the lyrics, singing along – ‘it’s a mad mad world that we living in gotta keep your heads up high can’t be giving in’. She didn’t care if she was out of tune; the exhilaration she felt was simply overpowering. That’s why she would repeat the song over and over until she became sick of it.
Her faith in god had been compromised and she lived her days with no orientation, waiting for god’s punishment to come tumbling down on her with full force. In the meantime, she read and reread Camus’ The Stranger and tried to sympathise with this man’s freedom of having successfully distanced himself from the moral pressures of society and the existence of God. She was always proud of the fact that she still remembered the first line which her A-level French teacher had so convincingly read out to the class; ‘Aujourd’hui ma maman est morte. Ou peut-etre c’etait hier soir, je ne suis pas sur’. She was no longer sure about the quotation, just as she was ready to admit that she never really understood the meaning of the novel. That was her life; a long lie, an education that taught you you were inferior, a nobody, authors who told you your society was half-made, third-world, needy and under-developed. Hers was a society that fit a backdrop. The characters, however, were brought from elsewhere. She could never acquire the superiority and confidence of the American and still could not give an answer to those who told her she was so lucky she was colonised by the British and could speak English. She would sit silently in class, burning up inside when she was not recognised or acknowlegded as being a native speaker of English. She would smile when others sympathetically remarked her accent was cute and would scribble her thoughts in rage –
Modal verbs: polite requests
May I rape the English language
until it bleeds and gives birth
Indeed, she envied the peaceful, serene, resigned look on the beggar’s face in Lavapies. This young man in a prosperous Europe, left to rot at the side of the street, next to the tarnished, defective trays of fruit and vegetables the vendors put outside for the trucks to take away. She was beginning to feel like one of those putrid tomatoes. She was tired of always having to show her ID to the suspicious police officers. She was tired of the scenes on the square with the police cars and the idle young Africans in a face-off, waiting for the other to make the first move. She knew some of them were drug dealers or petty thieves but she sympathised with them anyway and smiled when she passed by. After all, didn’t they have the same enemy?
Her thoughts drift back almost magnetically to the time she was approached by two plain-clothes police officers and the throbbing in her heart as she thought she was a victim of robbery. She saw the gun that stuck out discreetly and heard the threatening voice dictate instructions to her. She was to follow him in the side street and produce some form of identification. She tried to resist and scream for help in the middle of the busy, crowded pedestrian street. In the end, she tremblingly produced her precious card which gave her the legal right to reside in Europe but did not protect her from the constant persecution of police suspicion. Her wimpering was one of anger and helplessness. She shouted racism and discrimination as the gathering crowd looked on curiously. They were also used to such scenes – police searching and rounding up illegals on a regular basis. That’s why when she saw others like herself, their gazes reflected her inferiority, her fear, her submission, her bitterness and resentment. She wondered if they had also experienced the same. Were they trying to evade their insecurity with the disguise of chic Western brands, sun glasses, clean, shiny skin and why not, a white person by their side? Had they also been pulled aside by a group of men in the heart of the city and made to produce identification? Did they also have to show all the receipts for the purchases they were carrying? Did they stiffle their tears and wimper that this was unfair, that they had no right, before walking away like a dog that was refused a bone? On that occasion, she had locked herself in the dark flat and cancelled her plans after recounting her humiliation. Apparently she had piqued the suspicion of the plain-clothes police officers after entering and exiting two shops without making any purchases.
Following that episode, she hardly went to the centre anymore and avoided the police whenever she saw them. Fear would seize her body and cause her to sweat uncontrollably. She felt guilty although she was not sure what crime she was committing. Her anger gradually subsided and crawled into a hole from where it peeked out cautiously.
She learnt to ignore the covert racist remarks about her skin colour and her accent, she dutifully answered when asked how long she was living there and smiled when praised for how well she spoke the language. She had drawn a veil over herself and internalised the hostile externalities, absorbing them quickly and growing daily into a person she didn’t recognise.
Her re-encounter with the beggar of Lavapies stirred the dormant beast in her. This time she was living in another city and had turned over a new page. She carefully tends to her hidden wounds and makes attempts to come out of her cocoon. She keeps telling herself it is a new beginning, a fresh start, hope for a bright future. She no longer needs to carry that fear with her, although she still avoids the police, just in case. She is learning new words which increasingly empower her – schadenfreude, skurril, donnerwetter. The new, youthful faces in her neighbourhood reassure her and the smiles are comforting. The figure of the beggar belongs to a distant past, one she has sealed tightly.
One sunny summer day as she is strolling home, her eyes fall on a man sitting at the corner of her street. She is immediately and violently pulled out of her reverie. Before her eyes is the very beggar of Lavapies. As she passes him, she can’t help scrutinising him, looking him over intently to find some trace of a mistaken identity. She bluffs her way up the stairs in disbelief and sits down, her head swirling with a million questions. His pathetic appearance is unmistakeable. She is determined to confront him the next time she sees him and find out what he is doing in her new city. She wants to know why he has left his home, Lavapies, why he followed her, what kind of trick he is playing, what he wants from her. She begins to hear the drone of her mother’s voice booming. It is a bad sign. She needs to be careful: ‘it could be you sitting on that corner. Don’t damn a bridge you ain’t cross yet. See what happens when you neglect God who helped you so much?
Start to pray and beg for forgiveness. You ain’t have no shame, be decent, you hear what I telling you?’. She defies these negative thoughts, pulls her frame together and arms herself with bread and money. She is going out to face the beggar of Lavapies.
by Nasima Akaloo