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Book Excerpt: A beggar on Jalan Masjid India during Ramadan

I grabbed my camera and braved the erratic rain across the road to the Jalan Masjid India bazaar.

The world outside the hotel was bursting with the pending festivities, reminding me bleakly of home, but the dregs of guilt soon dissolved in rain, loud Malay haggling and herds of Muslims buying food for breaking their fast.  There was water everywhere. It pooled in potholes that had become ad hoc rubbish chutes in drier weather, in puddles on the walkway outside the shop houses and in decrepit parking lots. Old plywood planks and old newspapers were placed where the ground had been flooded or made soft and inaccessible by the rain. Everyone lifted their sarongs, folded the hems of their trousers a few inches above the ankles and carried on.

Several loudspeakers broadcast Qur’an readings; I recognised the beginning of the Yaasin verses coming from a beggar outside an expensive fabric store. He was blind, likely from birth, like most of them who were scattered on the sheltered walkways and the landings of overhead bridges when it was not raining. He had no accordion or keyboard, just wooden prayer beads entwined around the fingers of his right hand, a microphone and a small speaker that I suspected had been donated to him by a kind passer-by.

The flattened cardboard box that he sat cross-legged on kept him dry and he had an old umbrella that sheltered him from the rain. He was wearing a clean white skullcap. His tunic was also clean and tucked under him. An old walking stick leaned against the wall behind him. A young boy, no more than eight or nine in a threadbare and faded pink T-shirt and black shorts watched over his plastic cup. The boy stared at each donor as he stooped to drop loose change into his cup. He smiled at a large reddish note, perhaps a ten ringgit, and then gave the cup a little shake. The folded note was perching precariously on what I imagined to be a heap of loose change. The boy leaned over to whisper to the blind man. The blind man only continued his reading aloud. Minutes passed and the boy made no effort to conceal it.

The calls to prayer from a radio and a nearby mosque soon soared into the air, overlapping each other. Children and adults huddled on stools around tables of cheap hawker food, sheltered by makeshift awnings and umbrellas repaired and patched over several times. Those whose families did not manage to book the limited seats in advance sat on dry cement bunds at a nearby petrol station and broke their fast quietly with bagged hot tea and pastries.

Apart from the temptation to smoke, forcibly thwarted by damp cigarettes, I had not been tempted to eat or drink all day as I was asleep till just a few hours ago. I pushed through the crowd for hot sarabat tea. Like the few others who were breaking their fast standing around the stall, I drunk my tea and returned the used mug to a sprightly little man who put it into a huge basin of other plastic mugs, tap water and rain. I was looking forward to dinner uptown, on my own.

When I walked past the blind man and the little boy outside the fabric store, someone had put an opened Tupperware container of dates in front of them. The two of them were chewing on dates and spitting out the seeds. They were talking; it was a simple language with no need for many words, only their utter need of each other.

I approached the boy, the camera covering half my face.

“Speak Malay?” I asked the boy in Malay.

He kept shoving the cup up to my lens until I put the camera away.

“Where from?”

He seemed startled, but did not reply. Instead, he pointed into the distance at an alley between two shophouses condemned to rubble.

“If I put money here, can I take some pictures?” I said pointing to his cup, then wiggling my thumbs and forefingers in front of my face in a ‘squeeze the trigger’ motion.

I did not think he understood until he smiled, revealing black teeth. I held up a five ringgit note so that he knew how much I was contributing. I slipped it into his cup, withdrawing the old tenner into my hand and into my side pocket. It was only when he returned to his spot on the pathway that I knew he did not notice my sleight of hand.

Perhaps this was a good Ramadan. Perhaps the overwhelming generosity of hardened Kuala Lumpur dwellers in that single holy month had made it worthwhile all the other thankless months of sitting in the shadow and dirt, waiting on scraps of random kindness.

“Your name?” he asked me in Malay. “He pray for you.”

“Salina,” I said.

The boy whispered into the blind man’s ear. The latter took a lungful of breath and said my name aloud into the microphone before launching into the Fateha verses. Something in me trembled.

Tempted to count the takings for the evening, the little boy looked into the cup, and parted the notes from the coins with his finger. Then he gasped aloud. He rolled his weight onto one hip, lifted the other hip and groped the cardboard floor under it. In rising panic, he sprung up and looked around him, his bare feet making black print marks on the wet floor a metre around where they sat.

The blind man asked the boy a question. The boy started crying, but did not stop looking. The ten ringgit note. It’s missing.

The blind were hard to read with their eyes sealed shut in their sockets. The blind never seemed to be capable of anger, or at least they never wore it on their faces. Instead they wore a stoicism that could be interpreted as constant caution against being a nuisance, one that the world around them had to slow down and allow for and forgive.

The thunder was a pacified growl now. The air had begun to lift and the scent of everything, from food to rubbish, seemed removed and distant. One by one the street lamps flickered awake on either side of the street.

I drew my lens up to his face. The last strains of sun had disappeared now; there was only the deep amber light of a street lamp. The light contoured to the desperation along the lines of his face; the shadow pooled around his eyes and the cavities below his cheekbones like the black welts of chorus masks.

He abruptly launched into the Fateha verses again, his voice louder than before. The speaker squealed at the sudden spike in volume as he stumbled into the first several words, his previous careful pronunciation and measured song run aground by passion. The boy was sobbing softly next to him, tears streaking his face.

I kept taking pictures until something in me told me to stop; the growing familiar feeling of rock in gut. I was not sure if I felt better or worse when I placed his ten ringgit note in his hand and clasped it close. His hand felt shrivelled and cold. The little boy smiled weakly at me, still immersed in his loss.

From across the road, Ah Huat ambled towards me in his flip-flops, carrying a bagful of stationery, a duct tape roll cuffing a flabby upper arm and a hard pack of cigarettes tucked in the shoulder of his T-shirt. He held a hand up as he stepped up onto the curb and mouthed ‘wait’. Something soft was lolling in his shorts.

“What are you doing?” he asked, mildly bemused. I hid my camera from his view.

“Leave the poor buggers alone-lah!” he said.

“None of your business.”

“Martin call you many times,” he said. I sighed.

Ah Huat lit a cigarette. “He ask me to tell you, no need already.”

“No need to what?”

“Your job in KL is cancel. No need already. So now you holiday. But please call him back.”

I nodded.

“Call him. I don’t want to talk to him anymore. Understand?” he said.

I glared at Ah Huat for further explanation but he disappeared into the crowd with the smouldering end of his cigarette held close to his palm. I was not sure if he heard me say “thank you”.

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