The Beggar woman

-By Shama Vijayan

This is a true incident that happened to me years ago in the early 70’s when I was working in Bombay (it was Bombay in those days). I used to walk to the Santacruz Railway Station every morning to catch the 8.20 a.m. fast train to my office. I can still recall the hustle and bustle in the mornings as I rushed through my daily routine to be in time for the fast train.

The incident happened on a Monday morning. I had left home earlier than usual and felt good and at peace with the world because I did not have to hurry as usual and the road was practically empty of traffic. It seemed like the whole, wide road belonged to me. I took a deep breath and looked around, not a soul on the road, not even the beggar woman who squatted on the footpath invariably in the same spot every morning. She was the most eccentric and bizarre beggar woman I had ever come across. She would sit clutching a big bundle of cloth tightly to her chest and gaze vacantly into space. Not once had I seen her stretch out her hands to beg for alms and yet a large collection of coins lay scattered at her feet and she would let them stay there as if they were on display. What baffled me was that, the bundle of dirty cloth to which she clung seemed more precious to her than the coins that lay at her feet! However, in the evenings she would disappear with all the coins and the bundle of cloth and re-appear in the morning and sit there in the usual place and in the same manner. Evidently she knew the value of money or why would she take them with her. Or was she being used by someone? I wondered. In appearance she was medium built, didn’t seem badly malnourished but unkempt, yes. Her matted hair resembled Medusa’s head of serpents, her soiled clothes did not expose her body much, a sign of modesty I thought or perhaps she had enough clothes all rolled in that bundle she was hugging to herself. Her expression was always dazed, unsmiling and indifferent.

Now to come back to what happened on that fine Monday morning – I was crossing the main road in a cheerful frame of mind when I suddenly heard the sound of racing footsteps from behind like someone was in a tearing hurry. Wondering who it was shattering the peace and quiet of the moment, I turned back to look and froze at what I beheld! I had heard expressions like, ‘a cold chill running down the spine’ and ‘blood curdling fear’ but for the first time I was actually experiencing it. My legs were suddenly rooted to the ground like pieces of lead and I couldn’t find my voice. Just about a couple of feet away from where I was, the same beggar woman who used to be calmly squatting on the footpath, appeared from nowhere and looked like one possessed ! Her mouth was frothing, her eyes were like two burning coals and her hair was like a bunch of swarming serpents and in her hand was a large stone as she came charging towards me.

In my panic I looked around for some help and realized with terror that there was no escape for me. The road was too wide, open and empty, no people around to come to my rescue even if I raised an alarm, no houses or buildings nearby where I could take refuge, no trees around where I could hide or dodge her and no weapon in my hand except my handbag . Every attempt I made to run was futile because my legs wouldn’t move. I had this desperate, hopeless feeling that I was going to be mauled, torn into shreds or bludgeoned to death with the stone she held. She aimed the stone at me and it landed about two feet away from where I was. In her rage she screamed and frothed more and was gaining ground and I knew I was no match for her not when her madness was fully aroused. They say a mad person has the strength of ten people.

The next thing that happened was even more astounding and mind blogging! I heard the screeching of a cab coming to a halt next to me, saw the door of the car swinging open and a young woman beckoning and calling out, “Are you going to the railway station?” I nodded and then the next thing I knew I was in the car. It all happened in a flash. I just don’t know even today how my numb limbs suddenly became mobile. Was I infused with sudden energy because help was at hand? Or was it some kind of a contra reflex action in a moment of intense danger? I shut the door with a bang and the car then sped along. I cannot describe the relief that surged through me at being rescued from the jaws of a horrendous death. What a Godsend this was! What an extraordinary and perfect way to be rescued, unhurt without a struggle or a big crowd and commotion round me! Now when I think of it I wonder can these things happen except in dreams and movies!

Struggling to control my breath I blurted out, “Thank you for saving me from that mad woman who was chasing me?” The young lady gave me a quizzical look and said in a very matter-of-fact tone, “Which mad woman are you talking about? I did not notice anyone.” I was flabbergasted and asked “Then what made you offer me a lift?” She replied, “Well I just felt like offering you a lift because I guessed you were heading towards the railway station.” “Thank you anyway,” I said and asked her where she was from. She told me that she had come to spend the weekend with her friends and she was a Psychiatrist from the Thane Mental Hospital and now she was on her way back to the Mental Hospital. I was too bewildered for a moment at the macabre coincidence of being chased by a mad woman and rescued by a doctor from a mental hospital!

I narrated the incident to her and she exclaimed, “What a lucky escape from a deranged woman who could have caused you fatal harm!” My grateful rejoinder was “Yes and you saved my life.” She smiled and said, “I am just happy that I could be of help even though I was unaware of the danger to you.” When I narrated the incident to my colleagues in the office, they laughed and said, “Very scary, very weird and hard to believe.” “Well, I replied hiding my hurt, I was expecting some concern from you all but believe it or not – it is true.”

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