Today, like most days, you awake hungry, to the sickly sweet smell of an overflowing latrine. You are sprawled on the floor of a crowded train between beggars and baskets, thieves and ticketless travelers. An old man sits on his haunches a few feet away from you, his twigged fingers curled around a beedi. You see his black spindly legs carpeted with white hair. They remind you of the forest behind your village, of nights spent among trees splintered by moonlight.
You left Howrah station a few nights ago. Or weeks ago. You were travelling westwards towards Delhi when a ruthless ticket collector threw you out somewhere in between. You spent a few nights on the steps of an overhead bridge before a policeman woke you, called you a dog and moved you on. So you boarded another train.
You make your way into the adjacent compartment. A learned Muslim man and his wife sit opposite each other. She's short, egg-shaped, head-to-toe in a black burkha. He's tall, lean, toe-to-head in a white pajama-kurta. He stares at a gold-lettered book on his lap, she stares out into the sunburnt fields.
Your stomach gnaws. Another meal of sympathy and salt. You approach them, arm stretched, face stone. Your routine practiced over and over, engraved into the lines of your palm. But today something is amiss; that sorrowful face essential to your work eludes you.
You rattle your hand. Three coins rumble and tumble against each other. She looks at you from the corner of her eye. Fight for it, you little bastard, she says in her head. Lick the floor and I'll spare you one rupee.
Not today. You are just about to move away when you smell it. The heady, intoxicating smell of the rich.
You see them. Two boys and a girl, dressed like actors, laughing freely. You lean in towards them. Too close. Hand out. Hand to head. Hand stretched. Count one-two. Repeat. The beauty of any job lies in its rhythm.
Ah. You spot it. The look of discomfort, the squirm. Their eyes look away; their heads shake ever so slightly. The guilt, that beautiful guilt.
You walk on. They breathe again and you can feel their sighs of relief; it tingles the hair on your arm. You smile, still jangling the coins in your hand. One rupee, two rupee, 50 paisa. Say nothing. Let the coins do your talking.
You let a coin slip through your fingers. It falls towards the compartment floor in cinematic slow motion, spinning and skirting out of control, a dervish in a trance.
The fall, the crash, the attempt to bounce back, the lashback, the violent shivering, the quivering, the silence. It is a very violent dance, one small 50 paisa coin falling to the ground.
One of the rich comes running up to you. It is the girl. She bends down at your feet.
For you, that is enough.
published 4 April 2012