The following story appears in Anklet and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction by Lafayette-based author Shome Dasgupta published in 2017. Dasgupta spoke about his work and his connection to India, his ancestral home, in an interview with Christiaan Mader.
All he wore was a piece of blue cloth around his waist; he was bald and wore no shoes or sandals, and the shining whites of his eyes contrasted the dark color of his skin — like a soft boiled egg placed next to a burnt piece of bacon. He crouched and rested his back against the building of a clothing store. I stood outside of the building and watched Kolkata walk past me. Some carried briefcases, others held baskets on top of their heads — they all were going to work, I assumed. Some children dressed in blue sweater-vests and navy blue shorts biked to and from school with frowning faces, while other children, covered in torn brown and white cloths, played with the water pump, laughing and shouting, as their mothers went from car to car, person to person, asking for money or books. The buses sped as usual, the pedestrians screamed at the bus drivers as usual, the cars honked, the famished stray dogs searched though piles of trash and competed with the flies, and the homeless people lived without homes. It all made me wonder. It made me wonder, who are we? Who am I? We are all just animals.
I assumed the man crouched against the clothing store was homeless. He took care of himself well though, as he squeezed lemon juice onto his hands to clean his fingernails. My knuckles stung as I ran my hands through my hair. I bit my knuckles, trying to create another pain. The man’s skinny frame almost revealed the beating of his heart against his ribs. Mosquitoes hovered around his feet, but the insects didn’t seem to bother him — they looked like they were worshiping the man, moving in a circular motion like some kind of ritual. He casually cleaned his fingernails and was oblivious to the rest of the world. I licked the tops of my hands.
I crouched down beside him to rest my legs, for I had been standing outside the building for twenty minutes observing everyone and everything. The winds caused by the fast-traveling vehicles helped bring the smell of fish, lentils, and lamb from the food huts down the street. I intended to stay for about another ten minutes before eating lunch — the smell of curry was quite appetizing. As I wiped my forehead, I heard a clinking sound and looked at the ground to see a few rupees rolling around. I guessed some pedestrians dropped it as they walked by. I didn’t pick it up, but let them roll around for a few seconds until they lay still on the sidewalk. They stopped in between the homeless guy, who was still cleaning his fingernails, and me. He didn’t pick the coins up, nor did he look at them. He continued to squeeze lemon juice onto his hands, and I rubbed my hands against my body. A few seconds later, another pedestrian dropped a couple of coins in front of us. I looked at the homeless man again, but he did not seem to notice the coins rolling on the ground. The rupees came to a stop between us. I looked at him and he threw the squished lemons to the edge of the sidewalk. The mosquitoes continued to hover around his feet.
“Take,” a man said.
I looked up and saw a man dressed in brown slacks and a pink button-up collared shirt. He had neatly combed hair, which matched well with his finely trimmed mustache and beard. The man held some bills in his hand. He gently grabbed my arm and placed the bills in my hand, but I just let them drop to the ground.
“Take,” he said. “Find some food.”
He walked away.
“Sir,” I said. “I do not want this money. I do not need any money. I am just resting my legs.”
The man turned around, waved, and continued to walk away. He gave me five hundred rupees. I looked at the homeless man, and he was eating a banana. He took small bites and gently peeled it further after each taste. I felt dizzy — the world was going in circles around me, creating a whirring sound, a whirlpool in my head. The man did not look at me, nor did he look at the pile of bills I placed in the middle, where the coins were. After he finished the banana he threw it to the edge of the curb next to the lemons. He then proceeded to urinate against the wall of the clothing store. My stomach hurt. I gave him his privacy, looked the other way, and saw a woman drop some more coins in front of me.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “I am not homeless, nor am I a beggar. I don’t need your money.”
The lady smiled, touched my shoulder, and walked off.
“Take it,” she said. “Find some food.”
“I am not hungry.”
She tilted her head and looked at me like I was a baby, distorting her face, scrunching it up, stretching her cheeks, and opening her mouth like she was about to drink from a straw. She placed her hand on my head and walked away.
The homeless man finished urinating and crouched back down. He began to sing and clap his hands. A group of people, after dropping a combination of coins and bills next to me, gathered around the lemon-scented man and began to clap in harmony with him. They stood in a circle and danced as the homeless man closed his eyes and beautifully sang a love song. I remained outside of the group but could not resist moving in rhythm to his voice as well. More coins were placed beside me. After the homeless man finished singing, the crowd dispersed, and he took out a mango and peeled it with a penknife. I was dehydrated; I tried to quench my thirst with my own saliva. Again, more pedestrians were giving me money, and I pushed it to the middle, but the homeless man did not appear interested in the accumulation of coins and bills.
“Take,” one man said. “Find some food.”
“No thank you,” I replied. “I do not need any money. I have a home. I am not a beggar.”
The man continued to walk away. The homeless man sucked on the seed of the mango. Not once did he look at me, nor at the money. I licked my lips.
“Hey,” a man said. “Leave at once.”
The man’s voice was stern. I turned my head and saw a man who wore a security officer’s uniform, dressed in all black. He had a thick mustache and parted hair. The top of his black boots came to his mid-shins, and his tan uniform was short sleeved and covered in dust. His belt was shiny. He must work for the clothing store, looking for thieves or any other kind of troublesome people.
“Leave at once,” the man said.
I looked at the homeless man but he did not look at me or the security officer. He continued to suck on the mango seed.
“Me?” I asked.
The security officer pointed towards me and then to a direction down the street.
“Yes, you,” he said. “Leave.”
He stamped his foot against the sidewalk, trying to scare me. He clapped his hands, and then he raised them like he was going to slap me.
“Hut,” he shouted. “Hut! Hut!”
“I’m just resting my legs,” I said. “I am doing no harm.”
“Go,” the man said.
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re getting in the way,” he replied. “We don’t let strays stay outside the store. It’s bad for the business. The customers won’t come anymore if they see beggars hanging around outside the store.”
“I’m not a beggar,” I replied. “It’s shady here, and I just want to relax.”
“Are you going to buy something?” he asked.
A man and a woman, holding hands, walked by and stopped and laughed.
“Go easy,” the woman said. “It’s hot. Give him some water.”
“Then he will keep on coming back,” the security officer said. “Move along.”
The man placed some money at my feet, and the couple walked away.
“No,” I said. “I don’t need any thing.”
“No loitering,” the security officer said. “I will have you arrested.”
“But this man here is homeless, and he’s been sitting here just as long as I have,” I said. “He is loitering as well then.”
“I will have you arrested for loitering and troublemaking.”
“But look at him,” I said. “He’s practically naked, and he urinated on your building, and he’s been throwing lemons and banana peels. I am just sitting here.”
I looked at the homeless man, who had finished sucking the juice from the mango seed, and he threw the seed and the mango peels to the edge of the curb where the lemons and the banana peel lay. He then proceeded to floss his teeth with a thin strip of the mango skin. My gums started to bleed — I spat and saw tiny dots of red in my spit.
“Take your money and go,” the security officer said. “You have begged enough for the day. Find another place to bother.”
“That’s not my money,” I said. “People have been dropping it here for some reason. I guess maybe for him.”
I nodded my head towards the homeless man.
“Why aren’t you telling him anything?” I asked.
“The store has strict policies.” the guard replied. “We will lose customers because of you.”
I stood up, and the homeless man remained crouched and silent. The security officer grabbed me by the ear and pulled me away from the front of the clothing store. He shoved me and I fell to the ground. The officer walked back into the building. I stood up, wiped the dust off my arms, and walked back to the front of the store. A young student, holding books in one hand, walked by and dropped some more coins next to my feet.
“Find some food,” she said. “Take.”
I kicked the coins against the building and cursed. My stomach hurt. I crouched down and splattered the wall with whatever was inside my intestines. The security officer came outside.
“Hey,” the man shouted. “Come here. I will knock your head off. You swine.”
The man started to run towards me. I spat on the window multiple times. When the security officer reached me, I gave him a slight push which caused him to stumble over. I picked up some of the money that was on the ground and ran away. A few blocks down, I found a small restaurant and waited by the trashcan. It was here, as I sniffed the contents of the bin, that I realized people had taken me for a mongrel.
“I am no mongrel,” I shouted. “I am no mongrel!”
No one inside of the restaurant looked at me. Someone threw away a half-eaten samosa into the trashcan and exited the building.