We had just gone for lunch. My office mates and I walked like turtles under the hot sun. There’s this van / minitruck we buy lunch from – a little vehicle parked two lanes towards Bambalapitiya from Colombo Jewellers. On the way we all saw this old beggar, bespectacled, lying on the pavement with his legs twisted, but none of us really noticed him. The pavement must have been roasting. He didn’t make a sound; didn’t even ask for money. He just sat there watching sadly as people went by, ignoring him.
We came back. We had lunch. Then someone had the bright idea of going back for RIo ice cream. So back we went. On the way, I saw the old man again. This time I saw more. He had a wheelchair, one of those ancient models powered by a crank-handle. And Etisalat sticker was pasted on the side.
Still we ignored him, for we Sri Lankans grew up seeing beggars by the wayside: to us they are often no more than part of the scenery. The furniture of Colombo, as it were. A sad fact (and one not many people will like to hear) but true all the same. We ignore our fellow human beings out of pride, out of convenience, but mostly because they do not affect our lives. We are taught this subconsiously by our mothers, who walk past beggars as if they do not exist at all, and by our fathers, who rant and cuss and sneer at the beggar who comes tap-tapping at the window of your car.
Where was I? We reached the ice-cream spot. I, being as greedy as ever, bought two cones and went back, eating them one at a time. On the way back I saw the beggar.
This time I really saw him. I saw the man, tired, trying to crawl under the shade of a lamp-post to escape the burning heat of the sun. I saw the dripping ice-creams in my hand, my fine shirt and gold watch and comfortable shoes; such extravagance and waste compared to his torn shirt, battered spectacles and worn sarong. I felt sick and disgusted with myself. Here I had spent, on a mere whim, more than what this man made in a day.
I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. The ice-creams were melting. It would have been a gross insult to wave them in his face. I headed back to office. First ice-cream: one. Second -done. The moment that was gone I emptied my wallet. 40 bucks: I was to go to the ATM after work, anyway. I crossed the road, walked back to the old man, put the forty rupees in his hand and walked back, feeling a little less ashamed of myself.