Finding Ragpicker

He was around 65 or so. A full head of grizzled gray hair and beards, which successfully hid his features; dirty clothes, which may have been white once and now were indescribable gray; an oversized sack on his shoulders and eternal despondency on his face. He was a regular feature around our complex in Panvel, scavenging the streets and the adjacent railway tracks for bottles, rags and whatever he could find which can be converted into a few rupees. Even the society security guards knew him and didn’t stop him whenever he entered our complex in his hunts. He never spoke to anyone. He was one of those nameless, faceless multitude, whom we never give a thought.

Each day, around 6pm, he used to visit our locality. He never used to talk to anyone. Just inspecting the trash we dumped out and salvaging things we never gave a thought about. Like an industrious ant, which helps cleaning the garbage dumped by us, in its own minute way. It’s curious how the cast offs of one person turn into a living for another! This guy was a true professional. He never showed any emotions at whatever he found during his never ending forays, may it be a broken calculator or just an empty beer bottle. Everything vanished into his oversized sack, hanging from his shoulders, with a pragmatism worthy of a Business Director. Sometimes I wished I could get a glimpse of the contents of that bag of mysteries! People have weird curiosity! I have the worst! No one else cared.

 Last Monday, he didn’t turn up in the afternoon as usual. I didn’t notice, but as his timing coincided with my return from office, I subconsciously noticed it. He didn’t show up for 3 consecutive days, then I realized what was amiss. I asked the security guard about him and he shrugged. He didn’t question my curiosity. I’m known as an eccentric guy, who is famous for weirdest activities. You don’t call a guy sane, if he loves to catch snakes and is scared of cockroaches!

On the fourth day, when the old ragpicker again failed to show up, I decided to investigate. There were three reasons. First, it was a week off and I didn’t have anything better to do. Second, he may be seriously sick or dead! Although I didn’t know him, there was an inexplicable bond between us, not unlike  that between fellow travelers in a local train, who meet each other everyday, but never speak. Third, no one likes a mystery. The level of mysteries differ from person to person. Some worry their souls to high heaven if a young girl visits their single male neighbor and some don’t give a damn if they suddenly encounter a Yeti having coffee with their wife in their own drawing room. They simply nod their head and walk off. For me, anything unknown was a mystery, which I wanted to investigate.

Now, the question was, how can I search him! Your neighborhood ragpicker is not an entrepreneur, who’s listed in Yellow Pages. I checked with the security guy and he scratched his head and summarily denied. Then I had the bright idea of asking his fellow tradesmen. I occaisonaly get this flash of brilliance, you know. I asked another ragpicker in the vicinity and again drew blank. Apparently, this fellow didn’t know his whereabouts. However, he directed me to a slum in Old Panvel, where people of his trade lived. I felt a surge of excitement. We all have an inherent streak of adventure in us, even if you are a lazy guy like me. May be, some ancient throwback to our prehistoric hunting ancestors on a trail of a mammoth or a saber toothed tiger or some such abomination.

I don’t know how these detective chappies track and hunt all those criminals! I was a spectacular failure. I went to the aforementioned slum, along with my 13 years old son Shanu, who’s always willing to accompany me in all of my harebrained schemes. Sometimes I suspect that it’s more in the hope of a good laugh at my expense than any filial loyalty!

To cut a long story short, we traversed the entire slum and were unable to locate our ragpicker. We were dog-tired and hungry, but happy. We were doing something different than watching a Bollywood movie or bringing 5kg potatoes from market. At 7pm or so, we met an old man sitting at a doorstep of a hut, who listened to my description with the expression Newton might have had while contemplating the offending apple which triggered this gravity business; and declared that he knew the character in question. He further explained that the ragpicker died two days ago in a road accident.

We both were numb. When you search for anything, you automatically set an expectation, which has little correlation with its true worth. We were searching for the unfortunate guy just as a sport. We didn’t know him, but the search forged an invisible bond, which jarred at the news of his demise. We both were too glum when we returned home. I tried to cheer Shanu up, but it was an uphill task as I myself wasn’t feeling much chirpy.

Monday evening, when I was returning from office, I saw the familiar sack and it’s owner walking by our complex gate. I hailed him, “Chacha!”

The old man stopped and turned around in confusion. I hope you can imagine the difficulties a diffident guy like me can face, while addressing a total stranger. Fortunately, the old guy was a parrot. He started talking nonstop. I just had to interject a question or two in the soliloquy and was answered even those, which I hadn’t even contemplated.

It was a sad tale.

“Arre, saheb! I was arrested last week. They released me yesterday.” He smiled toothily.

“Arrested?” Although I jump traffic signals when no one is looking and cheat while submitting income tax returns, I consider myself a pillar of honesty in the quagmire, which we call modern society. I was talking to a criminal? My soul revolted! “Arrested?”, I repeated, horrified. “For what, man!”

“Oh, nothing.”, the old man smiled happily. “Saheb, there was a robbery in Khanda Colony last week. The inspector had to show some arrests. He got me in for 3 days and paid me 100 per day. Yesterday they released me. Saheb, you don’t look well!” He looked at me keenly.

I wasn’t. I remembered yesterday’s troubles I went through in his search and the torment of mine and my son. I thought of the mutilated corpse, which I had in my nightmares, while this guy was making money. I thought of my small son, who couldn’t eat properly, because he was witness to a supposed death. I felt sick to my stomach to realize that we live in a time, where everyone cheats. I damned the old man! I damned the police for putting him through the hell for a measly hundred rupees, which we don’t even consider a currency nowadays!

Then, I smiled.

He was a true entrepreneur, who didn’t miss a business opportunity. I was an emotional fool, who became involved into something I wasn’t concerned with. But, I was proud of myself. I don’t know about what. Maybe, for showing that extinct streak of humanity, which made me search for an unknown stranger.

I fumbled in my pocket and gave him a 50.

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