It started off as a crazy idea. We were walking, a little bored, and Guru suggested that I go begging. “Let’s see if you can pull this off.”
We were a little drunk on some tribal liquor (a refreshing white drink called ‘taadi’ that looks like buttermilk and tastes like heaven). May be it was the liquor. I agreed.
The next thing I see, Guru is off to the string of shops that sell stuff for the devotees. So he was serious after all. I was still a little high and so dint know how to react. Maybe if I wasn’t high, I would never have agreed in the first place. But saying a no now would mean chickening out and I dint want that. I was game for it.
I think you guys deserve some background info. We were in Koraput, one of the most remote and backwards districts of Orissa. We were in this place called Gupteswar. It is a holy place for Hindus and one of the thousand places where you can find a temple of Shiva. This place is a little into the tribal area. It was a strange place and there was no telephone network coverage. If I got caught and the locals did not think it was funny, my folks wouldn’t even know if I was dead. Did I really want to do this??
Guru did the shopping. He bought a copper plate. A pretty basic one – the normal begging bowl that you’d see with a beggar. Well, not exactly a bowl – I’d say something like a plate (come to think of it, have you ever seen a beggar with a bowl? They always have those flat aluminium plates).
But anyway I was getting ready into character. I put on a pair of cheap sunglasses that were bought there. I pulled my collar up and rolled up my pant a little bit. I was wearing slippers anyway and thanks to Bata’s wide range of models, mine could pass of as that of someone who wasn’t exactly Prince Charles. Guru found me a Y shaped stick that could double up as a walking stick. It looked like a catapult that Sabu might use. To add the finishing touch, Guru bought a miniature copper snake put it in my plate. (It was a Shiva temple – target audience!!) I was ready to go.
Or was I? I mean, agreeing to something because you are drunk is one thing. But actually begging on the streets?
The shrine is called Gupteswar and it is situated in caves on top of a mountain. There were steps leading to the shrine and people had to climb up and down the stairs to see the Lord’s you-know-what. I looked around, and found what I was looking for. There were two rows of beggars at the bottom of the steps. They were the typical beggars. Bright red/ orange clothes, beards and a dreamy “I don’t give a fuck” expression in their eyes. I was half nervous, and half anxious to see how this would turn out. I asked him whether I could sit next to him. He looked at me, up and down. He probably thought I was some fancy sort of beggar, or a college yuppie who had run out of money to buy the drugs that he was addicted to. I think it was latter, but he shifted and let me sit next to him. There was another beggar to my left who looked a little trippy. There were about 6 more guys in total and all of them were staring at me. There was no backing out now. I had to do something.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and started thinking of a Bhajan that I could sing….not one of them came to my mind.
Now, I studied in a spiritual institution. We were taught about 200 bhajans and in our hostel you could listen to the bhajans on the PA system even when you were in the loo. And I could not come up with a single bhajan!
Finally, thanks to Danny Boyle, I got one. I closed my eyes, tried to fake a painful Oh-I’m-so-miserable look on my face and started singing…
Darshan do ghanshyam nath more akhiyan pyaasi re…
That did the trick. Some of my compatriots thought I was actually a beggar and the rest thought I was plain crazy so they relaxed and went back to i-don’t-give-a-fuck land. After about a minute, this young boy was coming down the stairs and mumbling some prayer, threw some grains of rice in my plate. I was starting to enjoy this. Gradually, I grew in confidence and started shouting out some other bhajans loudly. My neighbours weren’t pleased with me. The guy on my right wasn’t probably used to this much noise and was starting to give me dirty looks. After a while, he politely asked me to leave. But I was just starting to get a hang of things and acted like I hadn’t listened to him. He got aggressive and asked me to fuck out of the place. He chose the choicest abuses in Telugu, and I dished out a few myself, the few I had learnt during my stay in Andhra. Within 5 minutes, they drove me out of the place.
I had no option now but to hit the roads. Guru, Sat and Nilu had come with me but they were on the road acting like normal tourists. If I started talking to them, people would smell something fishy and then I might have had to sleep with the fishes so I did not want to take the risk. I continued walking on the road and singing songs.
The crowds on the road were a little less spiritual and so I thought it might be OK if I sang film songs. I mean, I knew only 1 para of Darshan do ghanshyam and the rest of the bhajans were so boring, if I was a horse I would go to sleep while standing.
I thought of the most common song I’d expect a beggar to sing. Within seconds (it was like a Google search in my brain – Did you mean ‘beggar Hindi songs’ ? )
Pardesi pardesi jaana nahi…mujhe chhodke…mujhe chhodke
Now, for some strange reason, this song by Nadeem-Shravan seems to strike a chord with the average Indian male. I think it is because most people might be having this fantasy of a hot foreign chick or something. But anyway the song got instant recognition and I, acceptance. Gradually, I moved on to other popular numbers and inevitably there had to be a tribute to Himesh bhai. I was quite surprised myself, I knew quite a lot of Himesh songs and they were quite easy to sing as well.
By now it was about an hour since I had started and I was beginning to get a hang of things here. My plate was getting heavier now and my singing must have sounded pretty heart-wrenching because people were actually starting to give me some money. There was this little kid. He was probably helping out his dad in the shop. He walked up to me and said “Sing a Himesh song” (I was tempted to tell him that Naam hai tera tera wasn’t exactly Bryan Adams, but I restrained myself).
Sing one from Karzzz
Ek haseena thi
Ek haseena thi…ek deewana tha… kya umar…kya samaa…kya zamaaNA THAA AAA AAA….
When I was done with the song and stretched out my plate he politely told me that his dad wasn’t in the shop!
Other hits of the day included Dekha hai pehli baar, saajan ki aakhon mein pyar and Tu cheez badi hai mast mast. One elderly man stopped me on the way and asked me why I was doing this. I mumbled something about someone stealing my wallet and having no money to go home. He went in to bring me some food but I sneaked out when I got the chance. There was another man who asked me to sing Hanuman Chalisa. Another asked me to sing some Oriya Jagannath bhajan. The entire session must have gone on for about 2 hours.
It was getting dark and we decided to leave. I joined Nilu, Sat and Guru in the car and we drove away. While we were on our way, I turned back to have a last look at this place. Would anyone believe me if I told them this had happened?
My plate was on my lap and I started counting my day’s earning. They were:
22 rupees and 50 paise in coins
Grains of rice
2 small potatoes
1 piece of pakoda
1 cheap copper ring
I have done some crazy stuff in my life. I have acted like I am deaf and dumb in buses, sung at a barat,slept for an entire summer in a temple, been chased by 25 dogs at 1 in the night. But this, it was something else.
PS: All the names of people, places and songs are completely true. Resemblance to any person is completely true. And yes, the person in the picture is me.