More than 15 years ago – it was in Tirupati, a renowned temple town in South India that I found Ramayya, the protagonist in my story, The Disguise, in the book ‘After The Rain’.
I have very distinct memories of that day.
Summers in Tirupati are harsh and unforgiving. When you are out there exposed, it’s like getting barbequed. The skin gets singed baking the flesh beneath, the throat swallows the fire emptily and the pupils in your eyes melt into gels. It’s slow attrition of the human body and spirit, in other words.
I saw this man on the first day from a distance, and it took a while for me to realize that what initially seemed to be a statue of the Mahatma was actually a man of flesh and blood. Amazed at first, and then a trifle distressed at how life was steamrolling him, I saw him again the next day. As I stood looking at him from several meters away, I felt a new form of respect rising in my heart for the man who had chosen to make a living by becoming an odd amusement to the pilgrims who came visiting.
People stood in front of him for a few moments and some threw coins into the soliciting cardboard box that was placed in front of him, while some walked away unmoved. Perhaps, they were too vexed by their own woes to care. Every time someone tossed a coin, the statue would bow and change its stance. I must have added something to that meagre collection too. I don’t remember.
The image of this man stayed in my memory and I felt compelled to immortalize him. To a myopic eye, his passive act might seem like unjustified idleness. A ploy to earn a quick buck without toil. I wanted to say it wasn’t true. That this man wasn’t a beggar. He was earning a living. I thought it was important to see the difference.
I gave him a name. I wove a story around it. I titled it ‘The Disguise’.
We have been to Tirupathi a few times after that. But the man who inspired me to write the story was never seen again.
What must have happened to him in the interim?
Despite compelling thoughts of foreboding, I concluded, to appease my angst, that life at some point must have given him good reasons for not being there anymore. He must have found a job. He must have won a lottery. He must be happy in some sheltered part of the world. And his blisters would have healed.