THE BEGGAR BOY
BY AL LOHN
In the monsoon soaked mud of Beggar’s Row, laid a body. His clothes were torn and blood drenched mixed with mud from. It was Dhaka’s slum section. Shacks lined the dirt road made from cardboard, discarded shreds of blankets and carpets, and anything usable from the trash. Children, whose parents had broken their limbs so they could arouse greater pity, crawled around on all fours like animals.
Two nuns from the order of the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa stumbled through the ankle deep mud looking for needy children to feed and care for.
The Beggar King and three of his bodyguards stood in front of a larger shack built from discarded wood and corrugated metal. It was more elaborate than the rest. After all, it was the Beggar King’s domain. The King and his bodyguards laughed and joked about the man in the mud and ridiculed the two nuns that knelt down trying to help him.
“Oh, the holy sisters found a victim to bestow their corporeal mercy on. Do you think they can fetch him out of the devil’s claws?” Loud laughter followed. One of the nuns looked up and when she saw it was the Beggar King, she said, “Was this your handy work Amar?” She gave him a look cold enough to freeze him into ice. But he just laughed and waved a handful of bills in the air. After all, it was beggar’s row where people don’t count, the law of the fittest ruled there.
A young woman, holding a crying baby in her arms while a scrawny six-year-old boy clutched her leg, stood on a busy street corner in Dhaka. She and her children were barefooted, malnourished, and dressed in rags. Hidden behind the dirt and street grime was a beautiful young woman barely past her teenage years. The tears of her cute little baby left trails down the muddy cheeks, and her runny nose besmirched her mouth and chin.
Pulling his mother’s skirt, the little boy cried out, “Maa, Maa, I am hungry.” With her hand held out, and her big begging eyes saying, Please help me, the threesome were a sorry example of the city’s gazillion beggars. The busy street corner was a prime location to invoke the pity of the passer-bys. Tourists, having a moment of pity worth a coin or two, occupied the endless lines of rickshaws waiting for the traffic cop to wave them on. Here and there, a pedestrian hurrying to work, would hesitate in his or her stride to part with a coin. However, most of them ignored the young woman. They had become indifferent to a common sight.
When dusk sat in, and the traffic thinned out, the young woman took her children and returned home. Her legs and back hurt from hours of standing in one place. Her empty stomach growled from hunger, and her parched lips cried out for some water. Her children’s crying had turned to a mere whimper. They had lived through another day without food. Their empty tummies were hurting.
She shuffled down the dusty path of beggar’s row past the shacks made from discarded trash. She was the lucky one chosen by the Beggar King to be his woman. Her shack, made from salvaged wood and corrugated metal, gave better shelter against the inclement weather than the ones made of cardboard and discarded rags.
When she reached her home, the smell of alcohol came through the frayed out blanket covering the entranceway. Her man, the Beggar King, greeted her as she pushed aside the blanket. He lay on a shredded piece of cloth covering the hay and held up a bottle of Indian Moonshine.
“Hello, my sweet Scootli. What is our take today?” She emptied her pockets. She had had a good day and poured five dollars worth of Taka on the blanket. He let the coins run through his fingers grinning from ear to ear, and slurred. “Wonderful my beautiful Scootli, now come and lay down here so Kapitsa can properly thank you.”
“Please not now Chador. I need to feed the children they are hungry. They had nothing to eat all day.”
“Hungry children make good beggars. Or would you prefer I break some bones? Crawling kids would make even better beggars.”
“No, please, I’ll come to you.”
He yelled, “Tutu!” A fifteen-year-old boy came rushing into the shack. “Yes, Õimo Chador, what may I do for you?”
“Tutu, take the Brats out until I call you.”
“Yes, Õimo Chador!” Tutu took the baby and the crying little boy outside. “Shush, Baapun, are you hungry?” With tears streaming down his face, the little boy nodded. Tutu had some leftover food that he had stolen for himself and fed it to Baapun. The little boy slung down the food without chewing as his tears started to dry up.
He mashed up some cooked veggies for the baby and tried to feed her. She was so weak that she kept fallen asleep. Nevertheless, Tutu kept wakening her up, “Tumpa, you have to eat. Please eat something.” By feeding her a little bit at a time, he was able to get some food into her.
Inside the shack, the Beggar King threw his Scootli onto the blanket. He took the bottle of moonshine and forced her to drink. Laughing he said, “Here, have some of this. It makes you a better lover.” Then he forced his way on her calling it making love. After he had his way with her, he fell asleep. Scootli went looking for Tutu and her children. She found them lying under their favorite jackfruit tree. Baapun was asleep in Tutu’s arm, and the baby lay on top of him seeking a nipple to suckle on. Scootli took the baby and nursed her with the little bit of milk her malnourished body could produce.
“I have given Baapun my left over food. He has eaten. And to Tumpa, I gave some mashed veggies and fruit.”
“Thank you so much, you are an angel.”
“Are you hungry?” She nodded and swallowed hard. “I’ll find something to eat for you. Here, I have some Mango juice. Drink this. Your lips are all dry and cracked.”
“Thank you Tutu.” He ran off, and a half hour later, he came back with a stolen plate of rice and lentil-daal. He took the baby from her mother, and said, “Scootli, eat.”
“Thank you,” as she greedily scooped up the food with her fingers and devoured it. It was the first meal she had in twenty-four hours.
Four years later, Scootli was begging at the same street corner with her now ten-year-old son, five-year-old daughter, and a one-year-old baby boy. During the four years, she had aged more than ten years. Gray streaks had changed her beautiful shiny black hair to a dirty gray. Blood had seeped through the bandages on her hand, a present from the King. Scars in her face bore witness to the abuse from her man. She was still malnourished and so were her children. She begged for something to eat. Her five-year-old daughter, Tumpa, walked with a heavy limp. Her father, the Beggar King, had broken both of her legs so she would arouse more sympathy from the tourists.
“Maa, I am hungry. I’ll go find some food,” said Baapun.
“Please be careful. Do not get caught. You know what happened the last time you stole food.”
“Maa I’m smarter now.” With that comment, he ran off. Not far from their corner was a market. The vender at a fruit and vegetable stand heckled with a woman for the price of his mangos. It was the perfect time for Baapun to snatch a couple of jackfruits. He stuffed them into his pockets. Then he eyed a stack of onion naan. While the baker wrapped a customer’s order, Baapun dropped a couple of onion naan into an empty vegetable can. So far so good, but he wanted to get a hold of some fishcakes and khichur. For that, he needed to find a way to distract the vendor. Just then, a big dog came snooping around for something to eat. It was the perfect tool for a distraction. He grabbed a bone off the butcher’s table and teased the dog with it. The dog came running trying to snatch the bone out of his hand. While the butcher’s eyes were busy admiring a young woman walking by, he threw the bone between the vendor’s legs. Eager to get to the bone, the dog almost toppled the vender to the ground. As he tried to fight off the dog, Baapun swiped a couple of fishcakes and a tin can full of khishur. He ran away leaving the cursing vendor behind. On the way out of the market, he grabbed a sweet pitha from another vendor’s table who laughed watching his colleague fighting off the dog. Baapun went back to his mother. They sat under a tree and divided his unlawfully obtained food. Each one’s portions were very small but at least it took the edge off their hunger.
The sun began to set on the horizon and the streets started to empty out. However, Sootli was afraid to go home. It had not been a good day. The coins were few; it was barely a dollar’s worth for a whole day of roasting in the sun. She knew her man would be angry and beat her for not bringing enough money home for his moonshine. She waited until it was dark to go home hoping that he was in a deep liquor induced sleep. But when they got back to Beggar’s Row, Tutu stood in front of the King’s shack. He stopped Scootli and said, “Please, do not go in. I have prepared a place for you under my tree. It will not rain tonight. Come!”
Passing by her shack, she heard her man’s slurred voice. “Heeere drink!” and a girl’s sobbing. “Please Chador, nooo Chador, please don’t. It hurts.” Nevertheless, he laughed and said, “I wash you down with moonshine.”
Scootli followed Tutu with her children to the place he had prepared for her. She knew better than to disturb her man while he tried to satisfy his lust.
Early the next morning Scootli took her children to a nearby run-off-ditch. She cleaned them, and herself, as best as she could in the sewer-laden water and went to her street corner to beg. It was too early for the rickshaws with tourists, and the people rushing to their workplace had no time to dig out a coin. It started out to be another miserly day for begging.
It was the day of the week when the beggar king held court. He sat on his improvised bed with a bottle of moonshine beside him. Choton, his enforcer thug, stood to his right with his arms crossed in front of his chest. His mean looking scar face did homage to his violent nature.
Outside, Tutu lined up the king’s subjects. They were dressed in rags and covered in week’s old street grime. Some had neglected open sores, some had scars and wounds in their faces from street fights, and others crawled on all fours like animals. “Let’s start! Bring in the first one, Choton,” said the beggar king whilst taking a swig from his bottle.
“Yes, Chawdury,” he pushed aside the blanket at the entrance, saying, “You, in!”
A beggar crawled in and bowed his head to the floor in front of the King of Beggars. Holding out a handful of coins, he knew the king would not be happy. He was short of the weekly tribute he was required to pay. “Forgive me Lord Chawdury, it was a bad week.”
The King grunted and nodded to Choton. He took the coins and put them into a pouch. The King growled at the beggar in front of him. “What would you like me to do? You worthless dog!”
“Have mercy on me, Lord Chawdury.” The King looked down at the cowering beggar and again nodded to Choton. Choton pulled the beggar’s head back by his hair, kicked him in the face, and yanked him up. The one-eyed beggar held up his hands to protect his face while the blood gushed from his nose. But the next kick got him in the ribs. Choton grabbed him by one arm, dragged him out yelling, “Next!”
Another beggar came crawling in. He also bowed down to the floor and held out his dues. He had more. The King nodded and Choton put the coins into the same pouch. Then the King said, “A little encouragement, Choton.” Choton backhanded the beggar across the face and threw him out. One by one, they came before the great Chawdury. Very few received praises. Some got away with a grunt, but most received more or less of an encouragement. When the last beggar in line came in, he fell to the ground bowing and held up a bowl with food. Chawdury grunted, took the bowl, and started to eat. With his mouth full of food, he snarled, “What is this? No coins?”
The beggar cried out, “Have mercy Lord Chawdury. I was ill and could not work.” The King waved his hand for Choton to start his punishment. He started to work the beggar over with his brass knuckles. He cried out in pain. “Please don’t hurt me anymore. I have something that I can give you in payment.”
“What do you have that will be a proper payment to your king?”
“I have a pretty daughter!” The beggar whined knowing Chawdury’s lust for young women.
“Mmmm,” grunted the King and motioned Choton to go with the beggar and get his daughter. A little while later, Choton entered the shack dragging a crying fourteen-year-old girl behind him. The beggar followed them inside and fell to the floor, begging, “Please be gentle with her Chawdury.”
Choton grabbed the beggar and threw him out. He commanded, “Go home and don’t come back until you can pay your dues.”
Street grime and rags covered up the young girl’s beauty. The King looked at her with lecherous eyes, and said. “She’ll do. Go wash her and bring her back.” Choton took the young girl to the run-off-ditch, ripped her clothes off, and washed her down lusting for her himself. Then he brought her back naked. The King motioned Choton to disappear. Knowing that the king would be busy for several hours, he went in search to satisfy his own lust.
Dusk had sat in again. Scootli was happy; she had a good day. Her take had gotten her more coins than she had in a long time. The children and she left the street corner for home. Beside the coins Scootli had earned that day, Baapun had been able to steal enough food to feed the entire family. She took Baapun aside, gave him a few of the coins, and whispered, “Hide these in your shorts. Save them for when we don’t make our quota.” Baapun nodded and hid the coins.
When they arrived at the King’s lair, Scootli heard the unmistakable slapping noise and a girl crying out in pain. She told Baapun to take his sister and baby brother, and find Tutu. When she entered the shack, she saw the king slapping around a naked fourteen-year-old girl. For the gazillions time he tried to force himself onto her. Scootli, furious, threw her coins at his naked body and yelled, “You animal! She is only a child! Leave her alone.” He got up and attacked her like a raging bull. He beat her up until she collapsed. Then he grabbed her by her arm and a leg and threw her into the dusty street like discarded trash.
Baapun set out with his siblings to find Tutu. He found him under his favorite jackfruit tree. “Tutu, Tutu! You must come. Chappel Kapitsa is beating up my Maa.” Tutu and the children rushed to the King’s shack. They saw Maa laying face down in the dusty street. Tutu picked her gently up and carried her to his jackfruit tree. “Baapun, take the rag to the ditch and make it wet.”
When he came back with the wet rag, Tutu carefully wiped the blood from her face. She had a swollen mouth, a broken and bleeding nose, one eye started to swell up, and black and blue blotches began to appear on her body. The cold, wet rag revived Scootli. Tutu helped her to sit up against the tree. “Children, why don’t you eat, you too Tutu, Baapun brought good food.”
Her baby boy started to cry. He was hungry; he needed to eat. She winced as she tried to nurse her baby. Her breasts were black and blue from the beating.
When Scootli woke up in the morning, she hurt all over. The beating had left its mark. Discoloration and welts covered her body. She fought the nausea that overcame her, took her children, and went to her street corner to beg. Standing there, with two of her kids clasping her legs, a one year old crying in her arms and her tortured and beaten looks was a sorry sight. However, it had its benefits. The tourists parted easily with their coins. Even the locals paused for a moment to pull out a coin or two. In the evening, she had collected more than at any other time. She skimmed of coins to reduce her take to the minimum she thought the King would accept. The rest she gave to Baapun for safekeeping.
When they arrived at the King’s shack, the young girl lay in the corner whimpering in pain. “All right, let’s see what you have!” growled he. She gave him her take. He barked, “Is this all? The way you look you should have taken in a lot more. Are you holding out on me?” He started to slap her around again. Baapun, afraid that he would beat his Maa senseless again, grabbed a led pipe, and with all the strength he could muster, smashed it into his father’s head. With a bleeding gash on his scalp, the King fell to the ground unconscious. “Oh my God, Baapun, what have you done? You have to get out of here. Run away as fast as you can. When he wakes up, he or Choton will kill you.”
Baapun hit him twice more with the pipe. “He will no longer beat you up, Maa!” He ran away and kept running until he came to the harbor. It was a dimly lit place. Along the pier hung a few bare bulbs on poles, and oil lamps dangled from the bows of the sampans. Baapun found a boat grounded on a dark stretch of the harbor. He climb in the boat, made himself comfortable, and went to sleep.
In the morning, a hand grabbed Baapun by the belt of his shorts and lifted him out of the boat. When he looked up, he saw a big man holding him up in the air. The man, built like a house, was a giant. His looks scared the living daylight out of the little boy, and his drowning voice made him sound like a bear. “What were you doing in my boat, Pashu?”
“I…I…needed a place to sleep. I only slept in there. Honest!”
“All right, now take your stinking caucus out of here Pashu. Go…go…go…”
“Yes…Sahib.” Baapun ran away as fast as his scrawny legs could take him to the other side of the harbor. He was hungry; he had not eaten since the previous day’s breakfast. He remembered seeing a market the night before. The pier buzzed with long-shore men and sailors. He thought, perhaps I can make a few coins begging. He went around holding out his hand, saying, “Can you spare a coin, Bahadur? I am hungry.”
However, most of them told him to go away. Two sailors toyed with him, and said, “We’ll throw a coin in the air. If you catch it, it is yours. Ready?” One of the sailors threw a coin in the air. Baapun jumped up to catch it, but before he could get to the coin, the other sailor snatched it out of the air. They kept teasing him while they laughed. They had fun at the little boy’s expense. When the sailors finally got bored, they said. “Sorry boy, but you didn’t catch anything. Now beat it.”
With tears in his eyes, he watched them leave. But Baapun was a tough little bugger. He did not like being had. He got angry and snuck up behind them. While they laughed about their nasty deed, Baapun tripped them by kicking them both in the shins. They hit the ground scraping their faces bloody while Baapun disappeared into the crowd. He had the last laugh.
After begging for two hours, all he had managed to collect were two little coins. His stomach growled; he needed something to eat and drink. The only way he knew how to feed his growling stomach was to steal some food.
After he had walked for fifteen minutes, he saw the market that he had passed the night before. It was a big market with all kinds of vegetables, fish, bread, and assortments of cooked meals. He watched the venders to find an easy target. He looked for someone that did not pay too much attention to kids. A stack of onion naan held his eyes captive. His mouth watered. While a woman vendor gossiped with another woman, he slowly snuck up to the stack of naan, grabbed a few slices, and turned to run off but ran right into her husband. He was dressed in a bloody apron. The butcher grabbed him by the neck, and bellowed. “You dirty little thief! I am going to beat the payment for that naan right out of your hide…” As he lifted his hand to whack the boy’s behind, a voice behind him said. “Sir, do not touch that young man. He is not stealing. He was getting some naan for me while I was busy checking out your fruits. But since you insulted my boy here, we will take our business elsewhere. Good day sir.” With that, he took the naan from Baapun and threw it on the vendor’s table.
“A thousand pardon sir. I…I…did not know he belonged to you.” Continuously bowing, and with his hands clutched together, he walked after the stranger apologizing and offered to make amends. But the stranger put his hands around Baapun’s shoulder and walked away with him. “What is your name young man?”
“Ba…Ba…Baapun, sir,” he stumbled looking in awe at this stranger that had saved him from the police, or at least from a hefty beating.
“Well, Baapun, my name is Kulvir. Are you hungry?”
“Yes, Bahadur Kulvir.”
“How about if we go into a restaurant and have some breakfast? Would you like that?” With a smile on his face, Baapun replied, “Yes, Bahadur Kulvir.”
“Okay! But let’s stop by the tailor and get you some decent clothes to wear.”
“Yes, Bahadur Kulvir.”
Baapun looked in amazement at the handsome stranger dressed in a khaki military shirt, bloused khaki cargo pants, laced black shiny boots, and a khaki turban expertly wrapped with a Ruby decorating the front. His black beard, tightly pulled into the turban, and his fiery green eyes, surrounded by his stunning tanned face, were a most amazing sight.
When they got to the tailor, Bahadur Kulvir said. “Good morning Bhattacharji.” The tailor jumped of the stool in front of his sewing machine, clutched his hands together, and bowed. “Good morning Bahadur Kulvir! What can I do for you this morning?”
“We need some clothes for this young man Mr. Bhattacharji. Let’s start with a half a dozen khaki shirts like mine, six khaki shorts with cargo pockets, six pair of khaki knee socks, two pair of black hiking boots, and a dozen sets of underwear.”
“Yes Bahadur Kulvir! I have his size.” The tailor held a shirt against Baapun’s back, and said. “Perfect!”
Baapun pulled at the Bahadur’s sleeve. “Yes Baapun?” Baapun shyly looked at the Bahadur’s turban and pointed. “Oh, would you like a turban?” He nodded! He was afraid to say yes. The Bahadur rubbed the boy’s hair and laughed. “Let’s add three turbans with a ruby, Mr. Bhattacharji. We will take one set now. Khoka will come by later and pick up the rest.”
“Yes, Bahadur Kulvir. I will pack it up for you.”
The Bahadur Kulvir took Baapun to the Janani restaurant. It was his favorite watering hole. The restaurant lay right by the water and close to the pier. The Bahadur’s crew was already there. They got up, bowed, clutched their hands together, and greeted him, “Namaskar, Bahadur!”
“Sat-Siree-Akaal, please sit down! Meet my new friend Baapun.”
“Welcome Baapun,” said the crew in unison.
“Baapun let me introduce your new friends…” He introduced his crew starting with Commodore Bullwinkle, Commander Binder, and finished with a fifteen-year-old boy named Khoka. “Khoka, would you take Baapun to the restroom and help him to clean up and get dressed in his new clothe?”
“Yes, Bahadur Kulvir. Come Baapun!”
When Khoka came back with Baapun, he got a round of applause. Baapun looked like a young Sikh prince. “Come, sit next to me Baapun.” He sat to the Bahadur’s left and Khoka sat to his right. Baapun looked in awe at the food and drink on the table. It was an elaborate breakfast. The kind he didn’t know existed. There were pancakes, different breads, lentils and rice paste, a variety of vegetables and tea. Baapun watched carefully how his host ate. He was hungry and wanted to devour the food as quickly as he could get it into his mouth. He shyly looked around at the fine table manners his friends displayed. It intimidated him. The Bahadur saw his shyness and smiled. “Baapun, go ahead and eat. You are hungry. In time, you too will learn fine table manners. But for now, eat the way you like to eat.”
“Thank you Bahadur Kulvir.” Baapun needed no other encouragement. He slang down the food as fast as he could. When the crew was finished eating, the Bahadur said to Commander Binder. “You have the list of supplies we need, correct?”
“Aye, aye Bahadur.”
“Good! Take the crew and load them onto the boat. Tell the vendors I will come by later and pay.
“Khoka, please go to Mr. Bhattacharji and pick up a package. I already paid him. Then come back here. We will be sitting on the portico. Come Baapun, let’s chat for while.”
They went to the portico and watched the sampans go by on the river. The Bahadur lit a cigarillo, ordered a Bombay Sapphire and Tonic, and a Mango Juice for Baapun.
“Okay Baapun! Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?”
“I’m a beggar, Bahadur. I beg, and I steal.”
“Do you have a family?” Baapun nodded and said, “I have a sister. Her name is Tumpa, and a brother. His name is Mumai.”
“Do you have parents?”
“Yeah, my Maa is Scootli. Me, Maa, Tumpa, and Mumai beg at street corner.”
“What about your father?”
“Kupita is the Chawdury of the beggars. He is bad, he is a Chappel.”
“Your father is the King of the beggars? And he is a Devil? Why is he a Devil?”
“He beats my Maa if she does not bring enough coins home. And he beats up other beggars when they do not bring him enough tribute. He always gets drunk and then does bad things to Maa and other girls.”
“Why were you at the Harbor Market this morning? Isn’t your Maa begging today?”
“I don’t know. I ran away last night.”
“Why did you run away?”
“I beat Kupita with a steel rod. Maybe I killed him. Maa said run, Baapun. Kupita will kill you when he wakes up. So I run. He is a bad Chappel.”
“What did he do last night? Did he beat your Maa?” Baapun nodded, and said. “He beat Maa very bad. And he broke Tumpa’s legs so people would be sorry for her and give Maa more coins. He is a bad Chappel.” Bahadur Kulvir got the message. This twelve-year-old boy had seen enough misery for a lifetime. “Baapun, would you like to join my crew?”
“Yes…yes…yes…”He said jumping for joy.“ I would like to become a Bahadur like you.” Bahadur Kulvir smiled, and said. “In good time you will. Now you have to start as my cabin boy. Is that all right?”
“Yes Bahadur! I will be a good cabin boy. But I don’t know how to be a cabin boy.”
“That’s okay! Khoka will teach you that, and more. He has been my cabin boy for seven years. He is getting too old. He will become a regular crew member now.” Khoka came with a package. It was the rest of Baapun’s new clothe. “Hello Khoka! Sit down and have some Mango Juice. Khoka, you are getting to old to be my cabin boy.” Khoka’s face went ashen and his eyes showed fear. “Oh Khoka, don’t worry. You will graduate to be a sailor. You will learn how to handle ships. First, you must teach Baapun how to be a cabin boy, and teach him to read and write. Is that okay Khoka?”
Smiling from ear to ear, Khoka answered, “Yes Bahadur, I will be a good teacher.”
“Will you be my friend too?” Baapun asked.
“Yes Baapun, I will be your best friend.”
“Okay boys! Let’s go and get the supplies loaded.”
Al Lohn Biography.
Al Lohn was born in 1934 on the outskirts of Cologne Germany and educated in the art of apparel manufacturing. He worked until 1956 in his fathers business. In November 1956, he immigrated to the USA with his parents and younger brother. Drafted thirteen months later, he served in the US Army for two years stationed in Germany where he met his wife.
After his discharge from the Army, he became the manager of Brooks-Van Horn’s manufacturing department in Philadelphia, a Theatrical costume company serving the entertainment industry. During his ten year-tenure, he worked on many challenging projects such as ‘Holiday on Ice’, ‘Hello Dolly’, the Philadelphia Mummers, historical reproductions for the Marine Corps, the Smithsonian Institute and wax museums.
During his fifty-year career, he served as Corporate Senior Vice President for Liz Claiborne Inc and retired as Corporate Vice President from the Spiegel Group in 1998.
His extensive travel during his 50 year career took him around the world to all five continents. His travels gained him a deep understanding of the world’s cultures as well as their trials and tribulations. This, combined with his experience growing up in a war-torn country during World War II, and his military service, compelled him to turn to writing after his retirement.
He resides in New Jersey with his wife of fifty-three years were they enjoy their children and three grandchildren. He now writes and is the author of three books and a fourth one coming out this year.