#2 In The Names of God

The theme for that year’s Inter College Photography Competition was ‘Traffic Signals’. It excited me the moment I saw the notice on my college notice board. I borrowed a camera from a friend and began wandering around busy traffic signals of Indore to get my perfect shot.

On the first day, early in the morning, I clicked pictures of sweepers while they did their job. Later, I captured a guy apologizing to a traffic cop for breaking some rule and then took a few shots of a couple on a motorbike, indulging in a bit of a romance while waiting for the signal to turn green.

In the afternoon, when traffic got busier, a beggar asking for money from the passersby intrigued me. He was thin, wore a skull cap and a green kurta. He held a smoke emitting utensil in one of his hands. Every time the signal would turn red, he would go to the car windows or people on the two wheelers and say “Allah ke naam pe kuch dede” (Give me something in the name of Allah). I clicked some of his pictures too.

Later in the evening, when I moved to the next traffic signal, I noticed another beggar. He was wearing a saffron dress and wore a string of rudraksha beads around his neck. He followed the same process, asked for money from people and waited for the signal to turn red again. However, this one said “Bhagwan ke naam pe kuch dede” (Give me something in the name of Bhagwan). They had the same needs, did the same thing to survive; only the name of their Gods were different. The concept of ‘Different Gods, One Need’ grabbed my attention.

The following day, I decided to focus more on those two beggars. From the distant corners, I zoomed in and clicked their candid pictures. I tried to capture every aspect of their daily routine. Later that night, I sat on my table to shortlist the good pictures. While I kept hitting the next button on my laptop, looking at the screen with drowsy eyes, I noticed something that awoke me in a jiffy. When I compared the pictures from two different days, I realized that the beggar in green kurta on day one was the same person in saffron clothes on day two, and vice versa. Both of them had exchanged their identities on the second day.

Why would they do that? Why would two people from different religions switch their clothes and ask for money in the name of God they don’t believe in? I barely slept that night. The questions kept hovering in my thoughts. I knew I needed answers, and to find them, I went back to those traffic signals the following day. I noticed that they had not switched their identities again, but I was still curious. I stayed there for hours, noticing what they were up to. At six in the evening, one of the beggars decided to call it a day.

I followed him while he walked towards the next signal, counting the money he had collected and then joined that other beggar. My guess was right, they knew each other. After exchanging a few words, they walked towards the other side of the lane and stopped at a small shop to buy groceries. Then they walked further and turned left to enter a slum area. Hesitantly, I continued to follow them. People looked at me as if an alien has landed in their slum. I ignored them and kept my eyes at those two beggars.

Somewhere in the middle of that slum, they stopped to open the lock of – what appeared to be – their home. It was a small room, basically just four brick walls that were never painted, but were coated dark due to the dust sitting on it over the years. It had a rusty iron sheet for the roof. It appeared that they must have made that room themselves, without any professional help.

It was getting dark. The streetlights in that area were quite limited. Safety wise, I felt I wasn’t in the best place. The slum people continued giving me the awkward stares, enjoying their first alien sighting. For a second, I thought of running away, but the craving to know about them overpowered. With my heartbeats getting faster, I looked towards the sky, took the name of God that I believe in, sighed and knocked their door.

“Yes?” One of them opened it.

“Actually… I am a photographer. I have a competition in my college. I have clicked a few pictures of you guys,” I blurted.

They kept staring at me blankly.

“But I want to talk to you guys”

“Why you took our pictures? Who are you?” asked the other one, with a straight face.

I wondered if I’ve got myself into some trouble. Looking at their confusion, I tried to explain them everything, in a tone and language that I hoped they might understand.

“Great, come in saab, show us the pictures,” one of them said. Suddenly, they turned friendly, once they realized I wasn’t any kind of threat to them. I showed them some of their pictures and they looked at them in half amazement and half confusion.

“So why have you come here? Do you need more pictures?”

“No. I followed you guys to ask you something,” I said.

“What?”

“I noticed that you guys exchange your identities every day. You exchange your clothes, religion and even God. I was curious why would you do that?” I asked

They both looked at each other and scoffed.

“We don’t exchange anything, saab. We just wear whatever we get our hands on. Just that we make sure we’re wearing different clothes,” said the one who was wearing saffron that day.

“But, why?”

“So that followers of both the Gods give us money. It increases our probability,” said the other one, keeping a utensil on a small gas stove.

They were in their vests that time. I looked around and noticed few saffron and green kurtas hanging on a rope. One of them got busy cooking their dinner while the other one continued to entertain me.

“Why do you guys beg? You both seem physically fit. You guys should find a job,” I said.

“What can we do saab? This country is so weird. People here give more sympathy and support to a beggar, than to a person working at the lowest level,” said the one entertaining me.

“So if I can understand this right, you both have chosen to beg over working somewhere?”

He nodded.

“Why would you do that?”

“It’s not like we never used to work. A couple of years ago, we used to carry heavy parcels in the nearby wholesale market and load them in cargo carriers and trucks. The pay wasn’t enough to have our basic needs fulfilled. While working there, we have been insulted, ridiculed and bullied almost every day. If we commit even a minor mistake, they would refuse to pay us.

Whenever we would demand to increase our pay, they would abuse us. Also, someone unemployed would always be ready to do our job at lesser price. Today, those same businessmen sometimes stop on those signals. They give us money in the name of their God and we don’t even do anything for them. They don’t even recognize us. Nobody does, in fact,” He said.

“Exactly… we are surprised that you picked up our exchanging of clothes. We’ve been doing this for two years, begging to the same people passing from those signals every day. Sometimes wearing saffron clothes or sometimes green. Not a single person ever noticed,” the second one said from behind, while stirring the vegetables he was cooking.

“So all this has now become your business, in a way?” I asked.

“Whatever you name it. For us, this is our way of survival,” said the first one.

“If I may ask, how much do you make from this every day?”

“A lot more than what we used to earn earlier in our jobs.”

I was surprised to know that. I paused while they spoke a little about the food they were cooking.

“Will you have some?” they offered.

“No thanks,” I said and smiled “I see that there are more saffron and green clothes here. Do you have more people doing this with you?”

“No saab, those extra ones are for special occasions.”

“Special occasions…?” I raised my eyebrow.

“Diwali, Dussehra, Ram Navmi, Shradh, etc. are the days we both wear saffron, because people of that God are more in the giving mode that time. During Eid, Ramadan days we both wear green, for the same reason.”

“When our weekly collections are not enough, we both wear saffron on Wednesdays and work extra at Khajrana Ganesh Temple in the evening. On Fridays, we both go in greens to a Mosque nearby. And then, we get back to saffron for Shani Temple on Saturdays,” other one said and slurped some vegetable soup to check its taste.

“Don’t you feel guilty doing all this? Are you not scared that one day your God will punish you for using his name?”

“We are just beggars saab. We use His name to feed ourselves. Rich people, politicians and these so called ‘godmen’ use his name to do all sorts of wrong things, and I am yet to see them suffer because of that.”

They had a point. In spite of being uneducated beggars, they had their thoughts and morals in place.

“Are you both brothers?” I asked

“We don’t know what relationship we share. We both have been together since childhood. People around us either disappeared or died when we were young. There was nobody to give us that information. We don’t even remember how our parents or relatives looked like.”

I felt a strange connection with them in that very moment. They appeared like one of my own, just like my other friends back in the orphanage where I grew up.

“I know how it’s like to be clueless about your identity. I was given away by my parents to an orphanage when I was born, you know,” I said impulsively and immediately held myself from giving away more information to them, “anyways, if you don’t mind, I want to take a picture of you both. I want to have a memory of this meeting,” I said.

“Wait, wait,” they said and quickly wore their kurtas again. They adjusted their hair and stood with arms around each other’s shoulder to pose for the picture.

I took the picture and then showed it to them. They smiled and requested for a copy to hang it on one of the walls in their home. I promised them for the same. They insisted that I have dinner with them, but I refused. I said goodbye to them, and walked out of their home.

As soon as I was out, I realized I had forgotten to ask them the most important question. I turned around and went back inside.

“You both wear saffron or green. You switch your identities. I was wondering, which of the two is your true religion. Which God do you follow in real?”

Whenever I think of the answer I got, it puts a sad smile on my face. One of them said “we don’t know that too. Poor and hungry don’t have a religion anyway. The money we get from begging is our everyday blessing. The food we get to eat from that money is our daily prayer. That’s all that we have for a religion.

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