The Presence of Jalendu
This story was published in Cadenza, a now defunct high-quality literary magazine. I see it a one of my (few) best.
The Presence of Jalendu
The early-morning rush hour crowds would swarm round him, an eddy in the human tide. I saw him as a perturbation in the smoothly flowing streets, an obstacle to be avoided. Each day he would sit on the hard stone corner, begging. For nearly twenty years I have seen him from my shop. When I opened in the morning, he was there. When I pulled down the shutter each evening, he was there.
I knew his name: Jalendu. Someone told me. I never talked to him myself.
Sometimes I waved and he nodded back. When it was quiet I stared across at him, watching him sitting quietly. He never came to the shop. He hardly ever moved. I don’t know what time he arrived in the morning, where he went when he left, or if he left at all. I never crossed the street.
I would ask my brother, when I had been away, ‘How was the shop and how was Jalendu?’ He would tell me, ‘Fine’ and ‘still there.’ And so it would be.
I wondered about Jalendu – his age, where he came from. I watched as people passed him, trying to work out how much money he gathered. People did not see him. Even those who gave money – I watched the movement of the arm and hand, dropping coins into his bowl – did not look directly at him. They passed by. I never saw anyone trip or stumble over him, even at the height of the commuters’ rush to work or when the tradesmen were hurrying along the street. Even in the rain, to the tangled umbrellas bobbing and swaying above the crowds, he stayed invisible. He would don a large hat and pull a waterproof around him. His eyes seemed simply to gaze ahead. I rarely saw an expression on his face – just his nod.
When my son was small, I used to send him across with something for Jalendu – an apple, some fruit, nuts, a sweet thing. Daya enjoyed it. He was old enough to cross the road and it made him feel important. And he liked to give. I would ask him what Jalendu said. ‘Thank you,’ Daya would say and then grin. Jalendu would look across and nod his head.
When Daya was fourteen, he told me he did not wish to give Jalendu any more ‘presents’ as he called them. He said it was wrong; his mother had told him so. I asked Amara what she had said. She said I was foolish to give away our profits to an old beggar, and that Daya must learn to be businesslike, or we would starve in our old age. ‘That boy is our future,’ she told me.
He certainly took over the hard work; I no longer had to pay my brother or uncle if I decided to take a little time off.
As time went by, I began to stay at home more often. Amara complained, asking why I did not help Daya. ‘You can’t leave it all to the boy, he has a life to lead,’ she scolded. She and her friends were always busy, chattering, filling our house. She said Daya worked so hard and I should help him as much as I could until I had to retire. So I started going to the shop again every day.
We had to visit Amara’s brother. His wife had died and we had to go away for the funeral. It was the other side of the country, to the west – a long railway journey.
When I came home, I joined Daya at the shop. For half the day, all was as usual. Then I realised. something was missing: Jalendu. ‘Where is he?’ I asked my son. He looked puzzled. I told him, ‘Jalendu, the man who you used to take small gifts to.’ He told me he did not know. I waited for weeks, but he was gone. I asked other shopkeepers. They all seemed puzzled. ‘Oh, the old beggar?’ Eventually they would say, ‘I don’t know; he’s gone.’
Is that all? Is that what is left? I thought.
So, for the first time, I crossed the road. I pushed my way through the rush-hour crowds bustling past. I found it difficult. I went to Jalendu’s corner. I approached the place where he had sat for so long. The pushing and shoving stopped; people flowed around me. I could stand comfortably, raise my arms. I could sit. So I did.
Sometimes now I cross the road to sit in Jalendu’s place. In his sanctum, I watch the crowds pass. I am peaceful and calm. People throw coins at my feet, even though there is no bowl and I am well-dressed. I leave them.
My wife is unhappy. Daya is unhappy. ‘Why do you do this, Dad?’
I have no answer.