The minstrel was not completely blind. He had hazy vision that helped him go on his rounds. He left the village at dawn, with his musical instrument a dry pumpkin with a handle, over which were strung a few wires. He returned before sunset. We children loved Thejappa. He lived alone in a hut, under a banyan tree. We cleaned his house and ran errands, in exchange for a story each evening.
Our parents were always busy, and had no time to amuse us. So, to Thejappa we turned, whether happy or sad or angry. In spite of his blindness, he was always cheerful, and told us about the villages he visited, and the people he met. Some were generous, some stingy. Still others set their dogs on him, or shouted at him to stop singing. When he had many coins, he bought us peanuts or tender cucumber from some village market.
My mother had to work very hard, as there was no one else to support us. In the morning, she worked in several rich houses, washing vessels and clothes, or cleaning floors. In the afternoon, she gathered grass from a forest behind our home. This she made into several bundles, and sold them as cattle fodder. She had great plans for me. She wanted me to be educated, so that I could get a good job when I grew up, and not be a coolie like her.
All she could afford was one uniform – an ugly khaki skirt and a white blouse. Each morning, she dressed me in it, combed my hair and plaited it, and walked me to the government school. Then she went off to work.
“I cannot buy you sandals as yet. But perhaps in a month or two….” she promised.
Each evening, she washed my uniform, and hung it out to dry. It was Thejappa who provided money for a slate and pencil.
Years passed. I was growing up fast. I envied my classmates, whose clothes were always ironed and starched. They had shiny shoes on their feet. They brought tuck boxes with tasty snacks.
“I am poor and can’t have good things. But I can study hard, and top the class. So what if my collars are frayed or my skirt is patched!”
But at home, I grew glum and moody.
“What’s got into you?” Mother asked.
“Nothing,” I snapped, “In future, I’m not taking my tiffin box.”
“Why? Do you prefer to starve?”
“Better than cold rice everyday,” I answered rudely.
I knew that my mother was hurt. She was working so hard, to provide me with the things I asked. But I still grumbled and made her sad. This only made her work harder. I did not like Thejappa anymore.
Sometimes, he would come to my school at lunch time, with bananas for me.
“Who is that man?” my friends would ask, “Is he your father?”
“Hm, my father? He is a blind beggar who comes to my house for alms,” I would say.
Whenever I heard the strum of his instrument, and his voice raised in song, I would cross over to the other side of the street, to avoid him. When he came home on his weekly visits, I would scold my mother.
“Why must you share our food with that lazy man? His limbs are strong. What if he cannot see? He can easily find coolie work somewhere, instead of begging.”
“Be quiet, child. Who would give a blind man a job? Even healthy people are finding it difficult. Besides, sharing a morsel of food with a friend will not make us poorer. Who knows, he could be an angel at our door!”
“Angel indeed! Nothing but a lazy beggar!”
School had spoiled me. I wanted to be like other children, well-dressed, well-fed, with some coins in my pocket. I avoided all my old playmates. I even began to hate our thatched hut, and my ill-dressed mother, who slogged to keep me fed and clothed.
I became haughty at school, and told my classmates all kinds of stories about a red tiled house, with a beautiful garden, and a father who worked on a ship, and came on leave sometimes, with gifts and chocolates for me. Our village was far away from town, and I was sure that no one would come to visit us.
The year I passed out of school with distinction, I was very puffed up. At least, I hadn’t failed my mother there. She was very happy and proud of me.
“We want a party,” said my friends, “When can we come to your house?”
“I’ll arrange something,” I said, but I knew I was in trouble.
How could I bring them here? This was a hovel with holes in the thatch. We didn’t even have a proper chair.
“I’ll have to ask Mother for money,” I thought, as I walked back from school, “ Perhaps I could entertain them in the school canteen.”
The neighbours had heard the good news, and wanted to wish me. But I looked away, and pretended not to hear.
“How proud she had grown! Now she cannot even recognize us,” they grumbled.
But I didn’t care.
Mother was crouched on the floor, fanning the flames in the oven. She was preparing our evening meal.
“Mother, I need hundred rupees to entertain my friends. I must have it tomorrow,” I said.
“But there isn’t any. I have only a few rupees till the end of the month.”
“I must have it. My friends want a treat. What am I to tell them?” I cried.
“I’ll do some extra work tomorrow, and try to borrow the rest. If only I were stronger!” said Mother.
I knew where I could find extra money. Though I had not been to Thejappa’s house for several years, I knew where he kept his money. His door was never locked. Everyone was poor, and we didn’t steal from each other.
No one observed me slip into his hut. Thejappa wouldn’t be home till evening. I grabbed two fists full of coins from his tin, and put them in a paper bag I had brought. Then I heard the tap of Thejappa’s cane.
“Good Lord! He’s early.”
I held my breath, and kept very quiet.
“Who’s in here?” he asked. “I know someone’s there.”
He stood in the middle of his hut and listened for a long time. Then he went out to sit under the banyan tree.
No one saw me as I crept out.
Next day, at noon, I heard the tap of his cane. When he could not open the gate, he shook it impatiently.
“Don’t make such a noise,” I yelled.
“Your mother…..Come quick,” he said, and hurried away.
Fear suddenly gave my feet wings. I ran behind him. Mother lay in the middle of the road, a bundle of firewood over her. She had gone out to earn more money, but the poor lady had no strength. Some men carried her to our hut, and laid her on a mat.
“Amma, Amma,” I cried, “Don’t leave me. I have no one else but you.”
“Child, I couldn’t get what you wanted….”
“It doesn’t matter….. I don’t want it anymore…… You just get well,” I sobbed.
“Too late, my child. My strength is gone…”
Tejappa was there, and I had never seen him so angry before.
“Shame,” he said, “ To think I have lived to see your heartlessness!”
“Who do you think you are, to yell at me?”
“I’ll tell you. She spent all her life, looking after you….. , a beggar’s child.”
“Stop it. She’s my mother.”
“No,” he said, “ She’s not your mother. Your mother died when you were born, and I took you to the forest to leave you there, because you were also going to die. She died of a terrible fever, the same that took away my sight.”
“Don’t… don’t. I can’t hear anymore. You’re lying.”
“You must hear it all. She took you from my hands and brought you up as her own. She worked herself to the bone, to send you to school. You wicked girl! What good is knowledge, if it steals away the love in your heart, and your respect for others? You’ve become too proud of yourself. You’ve stooped so low as to steal coins from a blind man’s house. There has never been a theft in our village.”
“Forgive me, Father,” I begged, “ I’m so ashamed.”
Today, Thejappa doesn’t roam the streets. He has forgiven me, and we live together. But there’s never a day, when both of us don’t remember that selfless woman who cared for me.